There's a new player in the biometrics market that claims it can dramatically reduce implementation costs while improving reliability, using technology that relies on pressure sensing.

Fidelica Microsystems, a two-year-old company based in Milpitas, Calif., has about 29 companies testing its fingerprint sensor, says Robert Allen, VP of marketing and business development for the company. Fidelica sells the sensors to manufacturers of keyboards, smart cards, cell phones and others interested in building biometric security into their devices.

Value-added resellers are another target market, as those firms, in turn, will build the technology into applications intended for the financial services, health care and other markets where strong authentication is crucial.

Fingerprint readers typically use either optical technology or silicon-based sensors. Optical readers are relatively large, making them difficult to incorporate into laptops and handheld devices. That leaves silicon, which Allen says is far more expensive than the material Fidelica uses for its sensors. A silicon-based sensor costs a manufacturer about $20, whereas Fidelica's sensors cost around $2, he says. That's because Fidelica makes its sensors out of LCD glass panels, like those used for laptop screens. Whereas manufacturers can get about 30 sensors from a typical six-inch silicon wafer, Fidelica gets more than 1,000 sensors from a single glass panel, which come in sizes measuring nearly two feet square.

Fidelica's pressure-sensing technology works by taking into account the difference in pressure between the ridges and valleys that comprise a fingerprint. Ridges cause the sensor to change state, enabling it to create what amounts to a black-and-white image of a fingerprint. "We're the only guys who mimic what happens at the police station," Allen says.

He adds that the technology is immune to factors that can cause false readings on other types of sensors, such as oil, dirt or moisture on the finger. "Silicon is not designed to be touched by humans," Allen says. "It reacts in different ways to moisture, dirt and so on."

Fidelica's sensor can also be made very small, about 1 millimeter tall by one-half inch square, because it needs to take into account only a small portion of the finger. It also needs to process only about one-eighth the amount of information as competing sensors, Allen says. That means it operates faster and consumes less power, which is important for battery life in cell phones and similar applications.

As a company, Fidelica is focused on technology. In addition to a board of directors the company has a scientific advisory board - a group of consultants who help guide the company in exchange for an equity stake. Most of the advisers are highly successful in their own right, says Fidelica Founder and CEO K.G. Ganapathi, so they do it more for their interest in technology than the money.

Fidelica employs about 25 people; 20 of them are engineers and half of the engineers have PhDs. The company raised about $2.3 million in seed financing and is closing a second round of financing for between $6 million and $8 million.