Woog's World: Visionary idea one reason Westporter's in Inventor Hall of Fame
Published 6:11 am, Friday, May 8, 2015
Leonard Flom has always seen things in a different way than others.
His high school trigonometry teacher thought that his unorthodox reasoning would hurt him -- and perhaps her reputation too -- on New York's Regents exam. He turned out to be the only student with a perfect score. Flom went on to earn a medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine, and a career in ophthalmology.
In the 1960s, he moved to Westport. He taught and worked at a number of New York and Connecticut universities and hospitals. For much of each day, he looked through lenses. Where other doctors saw patients and problems, Flom saw "magnificent, beautiful" irises, with infinite variations in structure and color.
Gradually -- sometime in the 1970s, Flom recalls -- he had an idea: Why rely only on the difficult process of fingerprinting? Why not use irises to identify people?
No one believed it could be done. As with an earlier suggestion by another doctor to use blood vessels in the retina for identification, colleagues argued that pupils moved all the time. No two images would ever be the same.
After two years, Flom found a believer. Working with an attorney, they submitted a claim to the patent office. It was rejected.
Their attorney suggested they appeal in person. At the patent office in Washington, D.C., an examiner told them that the process they described could not work, because irises change colors. You know, he said, when a person is envious, the iris turns green. Flom could not believe what he was hearing.
Working with Aran Safir, Flom honed his idea. Iris recognition's appeal was based on speed, ease of use, high level of accuracy, and lack of contact. But funding was impossible to obtain. No one wanted to give Flom and Safir money until they could prove their idea worked.
Finally, they decided to take things into their own hands. Within months they'd built a prototype. It cost just $13,000 -- and it worked. In just a couple of minutes, the device matched iris images with stored data and recognized unique individuals.
"The iris is the most advanced biometric we know of," Flom says. "A moving pupil is not a liability -- it's the most important asset. No matter what you put in front of it, the iris remains fixed."
Jack Welch was a patient of Flom's. Though the doctor did not ask the General Electric CEO to help, GE Capital invested in the fledgling company, called IrisScan. The inventors also received help from a government agency, which contributed $250,000.
Today, iris recognition is considered to be the most-accurate method of biometric identification, based on physical or behavioral characteristics. Yet there is a substantial drawback: A face can be hidden.
So Flom came up with another idea: radar skeletal biometrics. The human skeleton cannot be masked. A prototype has not been built, though. Once again, funding remains an issue.
Flom is working on another idea, too: enrolling newborns and birth mothers in the delivery room. Though a baby's iris is not fully structured until about three months, taking images of the baby's ears and the mother's iris -- with a device as simple as a cellphone or tablet -- results in virtually certain identification.
Meanwhile, a dispute with a computer scientist clouded Flom's and Safir's patent claim. It took more than 25 years, but in 2013 the National Inventors Hall of Fame recognized the doctors' contribution. Flom was named to the Hall.
It's a prestigious honor. Only 500 inventors have ever been inducted. Flom shares an alphabetical page with men named Edison, Fulton and Firestone.
Flom is now 87 years old. But he continues to think of new ways to solve problems. At the beginning of the Ebola outbreak, he recalled an idea he'd pitched to Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, years ago. Flom believes that treating victims of lethal virus and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections (like Ebola sufferers, and those with HIV/AIDS) with "close contact UV-C photons" (ultraviolet C rods) could kill off the virus, without any adverse health risks.
He's not sure why this idea has not been explored. Perhaps the reasons are bound up in pharmaceutical politics. "It's very frustrating," Flom admits. But it took him two years to convince the patent office that he was on to something with iris identification, and another 25 years to earn recognition from the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Despite his age, he can wait.
And -- nearing his ninth decade -- he shows no signs of slowing down. He conducts research at Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Ramla, Israel. Closer to home, Flom continues to teach at his alma mater, the New York University School of Medicine. That's where, in a few days, he will present a diploma to his granddaughter, Julie Flom.
How's that for recognition!