EyeVerify CEO Toby Rush’s journey from farmhand to founder

Roughly an hour and a half from his office in the Kansas City Startup Village, EyeVerify CEO and founder Toby Rush was trained in the art of entrepreneurship. It wasn't in a classroom or under the wing of a seasoned business icon, but in the fields of his family's farm in Severance, Kan. ...

Toby Rush (center) feeds some of the family’s farm cats with two of his four sisters.

Roughly an hour and a half from his office in the Kansas City Startup Village, EyeVerify CEO and founder Toby Rush was trained in the art of entrepreneurship. It wasn’t in a classroom or under the wing of a seasoned business icon, but in the fields of his family’s farm in Severance, Kan. 

“I grew up in the most entrepreneurial environment in the world,” Rush said. “My dad was the CEO, COO, CFO and everything else.” 

Rush was a fourth grader when he struck his first business deal: If his father bought him two pigs, Toby would pay their vet bills and do chores in the sty. Rush kept his end of the bargain, raising litters of piglets to sell and turning regular profits. As he entered high school, Rush found other ways to use his knack for business.

“Local farmers would call me to help bale their hay,” Rush said. “I would hire out a few of my friends, do the job, pay them and still earn a profit. I didn’t think of it as entrepreneurship at the time, but it was a practical application of my ability to lead and make money.”

“The only constraint is how creative you can be”

He valued his experience and agricultural know-how planted at the farm, but chose to follow his aptitude for math and science at Kansas State. By the time he reached his sophomore year, he stumbled upon the burgeoning science of software development. Although today the field is light years ahead of where it was in the ’80s, he found tremendous freedom compared to the creative confines of engineering.

“Engineering is all about constraints the world puts on you: How fast can a wheel turn, what’s the potential strength of a rod, and so on,” he said. “In software development, the only constraint is how creative you can be.”

That freedom led Rush to pursue software development internships with heavy hitters like Proctor & Gamble and Exxon. After graduating from K-State with a degree in mechanical engineering, he and his new wife, JoAnna, moved to Houston. Although his degree didn’t carry any specific software development training, Rush’s farmhand work ethic spoke louder than the holes in his resume. 

“There were and still are consulting firms that don’t prejudice my engineering degree, but instead they get the best and the brightest people and teach them to do the things that [the company] does,” Rush said. “People love hiring hard-working, self-motivating, very focused people, and many of them tend to be from an agricultural background.”

Back home to Kansas City

Rush cut his teeth for a year as an analyst at Accenture working on major SAP development for Fortune 500 companies, followed by work at another consulting firm and a startup. But Houston wasn’t home, and after five years, Rush and his wife moved back to the Kansas City area (at right, the view outside Rush’s childhood home) to live near those who had supported and shaped them as individuals.

“We loved Houston, but we also wanted to be intentional about what we do and who we are around,” Rush said. “We moved back to Kansas City because we wanted to be close to the people who are important to us.”

Although he had business connections, Rush was starting with a clean slate. Kids hadn’t come along yet, so JoAnna worked full-time as an attorney while Rush kept his ear to the ground for entrepreneurial opportunities. He and a business contact, George Rothwell, found a market void in radio frequency identification within industrial warehouses. In 2003, Rush co-founded Rush Tracking Systems, a consulting firm that utilized RFID tracking technologies and matured into a software platform to optimized forklifts in warehouses. As his first big step into his entrepreneurial shoes, Rush looks back with a chuckle.

“To say we were naïve and green would be kind,” Rush said. “If we realized how little we knew, we wouldn’t have done it.”

But they did and in 2009, they successfully sold the company. Rush was suddenly in the market for another opportunity, and he didn’t have to look far to find it.

It took some convincing

“I talked to different contacts within the software development community and finally heard about a guy at UMKC doing some experimental research with eyeprint biometrics,” he said.

That guy is Dr. Reza Derakhshani, a computer science and electrical engineering professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City. His work in computational intelligence led him to tinker with eyeprint biometrics. His original project was meant to invent a new identification system using the human eye.

“My co-inventors and I patented a new biometric modality, but it was mostly for an academic exercise,” Derakhshani said. “It was with DSLR cameras and laptops. It was slow, and it was clunky.”

Rush saw Derakhshani’s research as a gateway to the future of mobile security. 

“I looked at the prototype, which was really being positioned for airports and border crossings, and saw the implications it could have for computers and mobile phones,” Rush said.

Rush shared his vision with Derakhshani to develop security software for mobile devices using eyeprint biometrics. It took some convincing.

“I thought he was out of his mind. How would you even do this?” Derakhshani said. “But, he had the vision and leadership to take on the seemingly impossible task of squeezing all of this into a cell phone. Obviously, he proved me wrong.”

Rush soon became the founder of EyeVerify. He and Derakhshani, along with a team of UMKC Ph.D students, worked to fit the program for those clunky cameras into accurate, fast software that can turn any mobile device into an eyeprint biometric scanner—typically seen in sci-fi films, now accessible for anyone with a cell phone.

Rush (far right) and a group friends hang out on the top of a combine. He credits his Midwestern upbringing and time on the farm as reasons for his success as an entrepreneur.

“Jump with both feet”

As the company’s visionary, Rush has worked hard to secure funding and sell the idea of eyeprint biometrics to everyday consumers. And as most startup stories go, EyeVerify’s journey hasn’t been without hurdles.

“It’s been a challenge to find out how the market will utilize it,” Rush said. “We learned that people don’t want to use it with a back-based camera, so we had to take this software from an 8-megapixel camera and squeeze it into 1 megapixel.”

And though Rush has secured significant grants and investors, the never-ending task of fundraising remains at large, which at times is exacerbated by EyeVerify’s location in the heartland. 

“Sometimes the necessary funds exceed the capacity of this region, so at times we are forced to look outside the area,” Rush said. “But I wouldn’t trade our home and relationships in Kansas City for any of that.”

Looking back, Rush sees the oft-clichéd Midwestern spirit and camaraderie as vital components for his success as an entrepreneur. For those with the ambition to follow his entrepreneurial footsteps, he suggests they adopt values he learned on the farm. 

“Work really hard, and learn what brings you to life. Then, take some big risks, whether that’s as a CEO or a team member. Only when you jump with both feet are you going to be successful.”

 

Credits: Photos courtesy Toby Rush.

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