Welcome to The Big Idea, where each week we pick a company with a weird, wacky or game-changing notion that could have a massive impact on the world around us if they can turn it into reality.
First up is Crypto Quantique, which is coming up with a way to read the unique quantum 'fingerprints' of computer chips. If this takes off, it could change the way we approach cybersecurity.
Instead of layering on more protection to computer software, we could check the identities of the machines we deal with using a baked-in feature. This would make connected devices in factories, houses and cars enormously hard to hack.
What's the big idea?
Every computer chip in the world — the several billion produced each year — is actually unique. Yes, they may be pressed out in big batches in foundry production lines, but each individual chip still has microscopic variations in the way the atoms have arranged themselves in the oxide layer of each transistor.
Every computer chip in the world — the several billion produced each year — is actually unique.
If there was a way of reading these unique 'fingerprints', you could verify the identity of every electronic device. No need for passcodes and safe cryptography keys — you would have a baked-in way of verifying that mobile phone making the bank transaction, or that sensor alerting you to a problem with an industrial machine was bona fide.
With now more than 21bn connected devices in the world (rising to more than 40bn by 2025 according to IoT Analytics), it is becoming increasingly important to secure the internet of things. Hacking IoT devices is not about some criminal seizing control of your connected toaster — IoT devices mighty control factories, city centre traffic lights, or medical devices — areas that you wouldn’t expect malicious actors to get access to.
How does the technology work?
Crypto Quantique uses a quantum effect known as quantum tunnelling to read the atomic fingerprint of a chip. Quantum tunnelling is when an electron passes through a barrier that it theoretically shouldn’t have the energy to pass through.
It’s kind of like a leaky hose pipe.
It’s kind of like a leaky hose pipe, and semiconductor makers actually find it annoying. A computer chip is about organising electric currents in tightly defined places in order to create circuits — and they don’t like this random leakage of electrons, which creates noise and interference. But it is hard to completely eliminate this phenomenon and as long as it remains relatively low-level, chipmakers just put up with it.
But Crypto Quantique has turned the annoyance into an asset because it uses this pattern of leakage to identify individual chips. They have developed ways to measure these extremely weak electric 'leakage' currents — we’re talking about currents of a femtoampere (a millionth of a billionth of an ampere) — and turn that into an identifier. Much of the three years that it took to create this technology, says Shahram Mossayebi, cofounder and CEO of Crypto Quantique, went into just being able to measure with this kind of precision.
This ID system has the advantage of taking up very little power. Many of the current security solutions, such as cryptographic keys, can take considerable processing power, and this makes it hard to put them onto very small sensors, for instance.
How far along is this technology?
Crypto Quantique has validated the technology in 2019 on a chip produced by Global Foundries and now has an IP design that it can licence to other chip companies so that it can be embedded in a silicon chip.
The chip will be on the market in two years.
“We are working with a leading semiconductor company to integrate it into their latest microcontroller,” says Mossayebi. The chip will be on the market in two years — but he is not at liberty to say who the big chipmaker is.
Crypto Quantique is also in talks with most of the other big chipmakers about licensing the technology, and also already sells them software — called QuarkLink — that helps them make their chips secure using other cryptographic techniques.
This helps pay the bills for the moment, and when the quantum fingerprinted chips come on the scene, the combination of chips and software will add up to a powerful security proposition.
What are the risks?
IoT security is a noisy space with a lot of solutions on offer — this may not be the prevailing one that is adopted. There are a few other companies looking at using quantum tunnelling for security including eMemory in Taiwan.
Who is the team behind the idea?
Crypto Quantique is a London-based company cofounded by Shahram Mossayebi and Patrick Camilleri, and has a team of around 25 people. The company was part of Entrepreneur First’s sixth cohort, and raised a $8m seed round from ADV in 2019. It is now in the process of raising a Series A round.
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Maija Palmer is Sifted’s innovation editor. She covers deeptech and corporate innovation, and tweets from @maijapalmer