ASK is playing both sides of the street, so to speak—high end and low end—and it’s paying off big time. With its paper, disposable (but reusable) contactless cards on one side, and its contact/contactless multi-application cards on the other, the company exceeded $20 million in revenue in just its fifth year of operation.
Founded in 1997, ASK today considers itself a world leader in microprocessor-based contactless smart cards and tickets, with transportation systems, using its paper contactless card or its dual interface card, its bread and butter.
It has an impressive pedigree. One of the company’s founders—Bruno Moreau, deputy general manager—was a pioneer in the smart card industry as a venture investor for smart card inventor, Roland Moreno. He went on to lead Activcard and was a longtime board member with Gemplus. The other founder–Georges Kayanakis, CEO/president– was also instrumental in early smart card developments.
How did the two migrate from their initial roots in the contact chip market to found a company focused strictly on contactless technology? They had a vision.
Says Mr. Moreau, “We saw that transport seemed the obvious center point for a community-wide multi-application card.” And the key in transport is a contactless fare collection token. In 1997 the men founded ASK, named after the acronym for amplitude shift keying, a protocol used to communicate between a reader and a card in contactless systems.
In the latter part of the 1990s, the large smart card companies were intently focused on the supply of high volume, high margin SIM cards for the booming GSM phone market. Contactless cards were well below the radar for most of the industry. Costs remained high for this lesser known technology and development was at a standstill.
Mr. Moreau and Mr. Kayanakis realized they would need to develop their own chips if they were to progress toward their transit-centric vision. They invested heavily in chip fabrication equipment and intellectual property, enabling the company to control the entire manufacturing process for their cards.
The company pioneered the creation of disposable tickets made of paper, a process patented by Mr. Kayanakis. Called the C.Ticket, the antenna is printed on paper using conductive ink. Traditional contactless cards create the antenna on a more costly substrate using a wounded coil of wire. The C.Ticket, says Mr. Moreau, can cost just US 15-cents when purchased in high quantities.
But, admits Mr. Moreau, even a 15-cent card is too costly for some situations. In Mexico City, for example, a single bus ride costs about 15-cents. Single ride cards would not be feasible in this case so a multi-trip pass must be mandated or another form of tender must be maintained in the system.
To date, the company has received US $32 million in investments, with 70% coming from a list of worldwide venture investors, including Apax Partners, AdAstra, Advent Venture Partners, Banque de Vizille, CDC-Ixis Innovation, CrÈdit Lyonnais Private Equity, iglobe partners and LongTerm Partners.
ASK employs 90 people, with 25% working in research and development. Its primary engineering, manufacturing, and card personalization operations are near Nice in Sophia Antipolis, France, with commercial offices in Paris and Hong Kong. Its clients include public transit operators and agencies in more than 40 cities, including Paris, Manchester, Lyon, Toronto, Nice, Lisbon, Venice, Rome, Naples, and Taipei.
In addition to the paper contactless ticket, ASK’s R&D team holds 20 patents. These include the world’s smallest contactless chip (one square millimeter); a printable antenna made of silver ink; the first ISO 14443 Type A and B contactless coupler; and the first secure contactless operating system for transport for which the security has been verified according to the Common Criteria Standard (EAL1+).
ASK also developed its own standards for quality assurance called “KAS,” technology that tests cards at a level four times the normal ISO test standards. In addition, the company introduced new techniques for “damage traceability” that helps customers determine and track unusual damage on the card that may have caused it to fail, particularly those intentionally bent or twisted by users. As a result, according to the company, it boasts one of the lowest rates of returned defective cards in the smart card industry.
In 2001, ASK increased its market share when it purchased Motorola’s smart card unit and took over the card supply for the installs Motorola had in place.
ASK also supplies chips, cards, and readers to most of the major transit system integrators including Telus, Ascom, ERG, Cubic, Indra.
The company has won several industry and public sector awards. In June 2002, it was named to the Top 10 of European emerging private tech companies in the Tornado Insider 100 List. That same month, the company also received the Trophy of Innovation from the National institute for Industrial Property, recognizing the company’s success in managing the commercial aspects of innovative technology. ASK’s C.ticket application in Macedonia in October 2001 won the Cartes Sesame of the Best Transportation Application and Best Overall Application. The C.ticket also won an innovation award issued by the PREDIT (French Ministry of Transport).
The company’s dual interface (contact/contactless) microprocessor smart cards have the largest memory capacity and therefore have the greatest functionality, according to the company’s web site. Several cards are offered depending on the specific needs of the operator. They are all compatible with one another. Multiple types of applications can be included on a card such as: loyalty schemes, individual identification information, city services, e-purse, parking etc. Additional memory is also required for greater levels of security.
ASK has a dual interface enabling them to be read and written to via both contact and contactless interfaces. This enables, for instance, the card to be scanned by a contactless reader when entering a bus but charged via contact reader for adding more trips or value to the e-purse. The ability to store value and create an e-Purse requires a much higher level of security, which necessitates more memory.
Two of these cards, GTML2 and CT2000 have been certified EAL1+, an industry first in teleticketing applications.
So, what’s next for ASK? “Diversification,” says Mr. Moreau.
“I would say we are exploring two large avenues of diversification: The tag business (the RFID world) whose objective, long term, is to replace the bar code by a more user-friendly read-write electronic tag, and the secured document market, which aims at introducing antennas and chips in passports, ID cards, driver’s licenses, and car registration documents.”
“In both instances,” he adds, “we are starting to get references and partnerships.”
ASK has already made an inroad in the RFID area with its contactless C.label. Based on the high speed ISO 14443, it is the only smart label that permits the management of 100 items a second and an anti-theft protection ranging as far as one meter. According to its press release announcing the new product, an option available on C. label is a reliable Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) technology. In fact, ASK designed C.label based on optimized EAS and RFID technologies, making the new product one of the most secure currently available. The EAS features anti-counterfeiting technology while the smart label chip complies with performance and security standards for RFID technologies.
The ASK smart label is designed similarly to the C.ticket in that it contains a microchip and an antenna printed on paper with conductive ink to make a wireless device that looks and feels like a standard paper label. Using RFID technology, customized readers can read and write data contained on the C.label chip. The printed antenna eliminates the need for the traditional wire coil antenna and resonant capacitor, which greatly reduces the overall cost of the C.label, says the company.
While the C.ticket’s advantage was that it was cheap, and disposable, one of the main advantages of the C.label is its flexibility—literally. It can be affixed to anything on which you can put a label, from industrial and consumer goods to documents and credentials. It can lead, says the company, to more accurate tracking and routing of products, anti-counterfeit protection, and electronic article surveillance.
It seems ASK is not relying on its current successes, but is seeking new challenges, new markets.
For further information on the company and its products, visit http://www.ask.fr. And read more about ASK’s contactless label product and its utilization in the Marseille libraries on the following page.