Meet the Prize-Winning High Schooler Developing a Biometric Private Key Meet the Prize-Winning High Schooler Developing a Biometric Private Key

Justin Zheng was a high school freshman when he first invested in bitcoin. “My friends were like, ‘Oh look, bitcoin’s going up. Let’s buy a bunch of it,’” says the now 18-year-old. Unfortunately, they sold early. “We were like, ‘Oh, nice. We can buy video games now,'” says Zheng with a laugh. “We made $30.”

Even if the experience didn’t make him rich, it got him interested in the technology that underlies crypto. Zheng’s been obsessed with blockchain ever since.

Last month, Zheng and business partner Sungun Huh, 39, were among the winners of the third Pioneer tournament. Their project—still in its infancy—is a private key that uses biometrics as an authentication and recovery system, in theory eliminating the risk of losing access to your key.

Pioneer is an experimental fund that launched last year. It aims to “build a kind of search engine for finding great people with talent, ambition, and potential,” founder Daniel Gross told the New York Times. Winners receive prizes including $1,000 in fiat, $6,000 worth of Stellar, a plane ticket to Silicon Valley for a week-long summit with other winners, and mentorship from experts including Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan and investor Marc Andreessen.  

We caught up with Zheng to talk biometrics, Pioneer, and how he’s juggling school and his blockchain projects.

So you’re a high school senior right now?
Yep. I’m a high school senior, in my last semester, and my cofounder is a neuroscientist PhD [at Stanford].

How did you guys start working together?
We met each other about two years ago online, on some app. It’s pretty shady. It’s like Tinder for cofounders. I guess we got lucky that we didn’t get some weird scammer.

What were you were looking for exactly?
I don’t know. I signed up because it was on Product Hunt. Then I matched someone, so we met, and talked about crypto and random stuff. After a while, he had this idea for a medical data company on blockchain. But then we ran into the problem of, well, if you lose your private key, then you lose all your medical data. That’s not good. So then we went down the road of private key recovery.

How does your project work?
It’s going to have something to do with biometrics, because you’re never going to lose that. We’re not exactly sure how details are going to work. We’ve been prototyping several different ways. The original plan, and what we won Pioneer with, was using your raw biometric data as an encryption key.

When you say “raw biometric data,” what do you mean exactly?
Like directly grabbing the details of a fingerprint or your face, converting that into some sort of number or matrix or vector, and then using that to [protect your private key].

That’s so cool.
Yeah, it sounds cool. But, um, it probably won’t work. Because your biometrics come up slightly different every time. Your fingers change, your face changes, the rotation changes, the lighting changes. So our solution to that might be to have different companies, like regular crypto companies, run validator software that does a traditional biometric check. And if it goes through, then they send them a piece of the private key, and when you combine them all, you get your private key.

"At some point, we think that anyone who uses crypto would want to have an easy way to backup their private key. So then our user base would be everyone using crypto—which, hopefully, is everyone."

Who do you think is your target audience?
Our very initial user base would be people who live in places without good access to financial services, so Argentina, Venezuela. At some point, we think that anyone who uses crypto would want to have an easy way to backup their private key. So then our user base would be everyone using crypto—which, hopefully, is everyone.

What was the tournament like?
We signed up for Pioneer like the month it came out. They run a new tournament every month. I think the first one was October of last year. We were finalists, didn’t win. Then we signed up for the November one. Finalists again, didn’t win. Then we finally won the December one. Basically there’s a leader board and people vote on which projects they think are cool, and every week you submit a project update.

How are people deciding who they’re going to vote for? How did the judges evaluate these projects?
The voting isn’t based on how good of an idea is. You’re supposed to vote based on how much progress someone did in a week. I don’t know how the judges decide. They probably need to look at the projects, not just the progress.

What are you hoping to get from this experience?
The money’s nice. [Laughs.]

What are you going to spend it on?
You know, we don’t know. I was really excited. We got another grant, too, and we’re like, “Cool, we’ve got money.” But then we were like, “I don’t know what to spend the money on.” The community’s really nice, too. It’s nice to have people to bounce ideas off of and get fast feedback.

What sorts of ideas are you bouncing off them?
Just like what I told you with, “Maybe this is how we do the biometrics.” People say, “These are a bunch of logo ideas. Which one do you like?” Or “I’m stuck on this. What you think I should do?”

How are you balancing school and working on this project?
I’m not. I don’t know. [Laughs.] I don’t do as much school as I should. I do dual enrollment [at Burlingame High School and College of San Mateo], so it’s a lot more flexible. And also college professors don’t care nearly as much if I don’t show up as high school teachers do.

Are you going to go to a different school after this semester?
I’m probably going to take a gap year.

To work on projects like this?
Yeah. I’m probably going to keep working on this specific one until we either succeed, or if I can’t do it. But it seems like we should be able to do it.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy of Pioneer.