By Chris Kenji Beer
Northwest Asian Weekly
At a time when there is so much controversy over police incidents, Niraj proposes a solution for officers to become “safer and smarter.” Today, he is building his fifth startup, Seattle-based technology company, FirstTwo.
FirstTwo offers a platform that utilizes deep background in information and utilizes it to support police officers out in the field. Given the political climate, Shah said his business “steers clear of the politics and specifically provides a technology and information service to law enforcement while they are in the community.” Shah’s company “provides real-time intelligence to enhance the security, safety and effectiveness of law enforcement agencies.”
“We hope to change the way law enforcement is practiced to improve the safety and security of both officers and the people in our communities. Law enforcement is really an underserved group of people and we join them in this cause where it’s not about the paycheck.” Imagine an incident where they can contact people in a home, mark that home clear and safe, and share that with various agencies when they arrive on scene, all at the same time seeing all first responders and their locations.
Given the volatility of gun violence, Shah also wanted to be clear that his software does not profile. What it does is equip officers with useful information about both the victim and criminal. For example, a police officer might be assigned to check in on a Level 1 sex offender who has been a fully compliant registered offender for 20 years. That same officer must be prepared in a different way if he’s responding to a 911 call involving a Level 3 offender who has a track record of Department of Corrections (DOC) violations and a history of prostitution while consuming illegal narcotics. “FirstTwo is making law enforcement safer and more effective,” said Commander Chris Guerrero of the Kennewick Police Department. Imagine if the City of Seattle police department had used Shah’s real-time intelligence to find the person who took the life of Chinatown’s longtime emergency assistance provider and favorite son, Donnie Chin.
“My company provides location-based identity understanding that equips the officers to be well informed with the background data they need to be prepared for issues they face when making their site visits,” stated Shah. Today, Shah’s company already has signed on 60 police agencies in California, Oregon, and Washington. That’s an amazing number considering the company is less than a year old.
Shah’s family is part of the original Indian community in the Pacific Northwest. He reflects on how different today’s Indian community is from the one he was raised in, in the Renton area in the 1970s.
During those times, “there were only around 500 Indian families in the Seattle area and we knew everyone. I was part of the first group of American-born Indians in the U.S.” Niraj’s father emigrated from Gujarat, India and arrived in Pueblo, Colo. in the late 1950s, before going to college at Columbia University and then landing a job at Boeing after graduating. His father supported the family as a Boeing engineer for 41 years.
Shah has demonstrated a knack for being at the right place at the right time. After graduating from Lindbergh High School, he was accepted to the University of Washington (UW). He was a member of the first graduating class from the newly established Computer Engineering Program. Today, the UW program is considered one of the top programs in the country. After graduating, Shah worked as a software engineer for IBM and Attachmate. In the 1990s, Niraj founded StockTick, a stock portfolio program. He then settled in for four and a half years as a software architect at Seattle’s Active Voice. The timing couldn’t have been better, as he joined a project from the ground up to build a unique messaging routing system. This included producing two patents. This project was separated out from Active Voice, and sold to InfoSpace in 1999 for $20 million. “This technology I helped build at Active Voice was also used in the core Unity product that was later acquired by Cisco Systems,” added Shah. Shah joined InfoSpace, directing innovation for three years, including 20 key acquisitions for the company. He then cofounded and helped run inome (now Intelius, Inc.) and Talentwise as their president and Chief Technology Officer, respectively. He hired at least 150-250 people locally in Seattle over those 12 years.
Shah became part of four technology startups, eventually cofounding and overseeing technology for three Seattle area companies, which sold for a combined $300-plus million in 2015 and 2016.
Earlier this summer, Shah took the opportunity to explore the United States by RV to achieve his family’s life goal to travel to 50 states and 50 countries. He traveled over 4,000 miles with his family in the United States and over 2,000 miles in Europe this summer.
During this last year, Shah thought about his next move. He knew he had a history of building big data businesses. He considered the challenges police departments face with their first response to potential crime scenes, for example. “I explored the idea of arming law enforcement with intelligence.” His first contact with law enforcement was with the Tri-Cities patrol. “The Commander in Kennewick opened their agency to me for partnership.” While the patrol officers had laptops in their cars, using Shah’s deep knowledge of information and technology “proved to provide very useful information about the person a police officer was dealing with.” Shah initially gave the Tri-Cities patrol a free trial, and they were sold on it. “We gave the officers situational intelligence at the location they are responding,” said Shah. “I call it location-based identity resolution.” Shortly following the final sale of his last startup in January, he made the move to start another business from the ground up — FirstTwo.
Shah recognized the sacrifice and high risks his parents’ generation took to travel to “the other side of the world. For them, doing everything in this new world was like going up river.” In this time (as immigrants), family stability was the top priority, he said. “My parents’ generation were conservative — were engineers, doctors, lawyers.” In his generation, “we are so fortunate, one could always go to work at Amazon or Microsoft if you have the skill set,” said Shah. “The next generation, or second generation of Indians born here, we have progressed beyond that community we were raised in, but so grateful for the foundation that they gave us,” added Shah. Shah believes in paying it forward, passing on his experience to other young entrepreneurs. He also currently advises local companies in Seattle and San Francisco.
Shah suggested it is the responsibility of his generation, regardless of the person’s skills, to be entrepreneurial in whatever you do. This, in itself, is a way of giving back and building on his parents’ generation. “The next generation, my generation, is a fortunate generation, and we should take that risk (of doing something different).”
Niraj Shah will be an honoree at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s Technology and Innovation Awards on Oct. 7 at China Harbor Restaurant from 6–9 p.m. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Online tickets at http://visionary.bpt.me.
Chris can be reached at email@example.com.