Forget hoodies and trendy coworking spaces: the four Polish founders of startup Randaemon are not your typical startup bros.
They’re a collective 284 years old, with five grandchildren and dozens of patents and research papers between them.
When I sit down for a Zoom call with three of them — two in San Diego, one in Warsaw — there’s no Web3 babble, no talk about aiming for unicorn status. They’re just having a great time plotting how they will successfully sell their quantum random number generator (more on that later) to a multinational like Apple or Qualcomm.
It’s a refreshing perspective on commercialising research-based innovation. Usually, founders and investors bemoan the fact that startups with academic backgrounds don't become big successes — or that not enough PhDs want to found companies in Europe.
But this group has made turning patents into a business work, even across borders. So what exactly are they building?
The quantum cybersecurity threat and why you should care
If you need something else to lie awake and worry about at night — in addition to the looming climate apocalypse, war in Europe or more pandemics — have a read about the quantum cybersecurity threat.
All communication and information exchange on the internet relies on encryption. Future quantum computers could be powerful enough to hack all this security. There’d be no way to verify anyone’s identity or do important things like bank or shop securely online.
But having a way to produce truly random numbers — the unique keys to convert an encrypted message — could make us quantum hackproof.
And it was just the kind of fun project that Kuba Tatarkiewicz was looking for in 2019 when he sold another company (he has started 10) and started twiddling his thumbs.
“Life is boring, being retired. I just had nothing to do, and I was reading a story about Russian hackers in casinos,” he says.
Life is boring, being retired. I just had nothing to do
His background in nuclear methods in solid-state physics gave him an idea: to use nuclear decay — which happens when unstable nuclei emit energy and is naturally totally random — to generate random numbers. Even the most powerful computer can’t crack something truly random. Such a device would have saved the casinos from being hacked.
There are other companies building random number generators — you might have encountered one if your company or bank ever gave you a random number-generating fob to log in somewhere. Those are mostly based on algorithms. They can never be truly random, but they are random enough for today's world.
A few are tackling the quantum issue, including Switzerland’s ID Quantique, acquired by SK Telecom in 2018. There’s also Australia’s QuintessenceLabs, which raised a $25m Series B in 2021 for a quantum random number generator and Quside Technologies in Spain, which got €1.5m in funding in November.
But the Randaemon team argues that even those quantum solutions are vulnerable to temperature fluctuations and voltage changes, and thus hackable.
Once he had the first patent in hand, Tatarkiewicz convinced three of his buddies to create a company. Janusz Borodziński took the CEO title, Krzysztof Appelt became CFO and Wiesław Kuźmicz joined as technical adviser. In spring 2021 they raised a $525k seed round from Berlin-based Sunfish Partners, a VC that invests in early-stage Polish deeptech startups.
The random numbers are generated using nickel-63, an isotope that spits out beta particles as it decays. The radiation emitted is so low that it’s not harmful to humans and it’s got a half-life of 100 years — far longer than you’d be using any electronic device.
The proof of concept for the device was done using a diode with nickel foil over it; the diode would count the decay, producing a string of random numbers, Tatarkiewicz explains.
Selling to Apple or Qualcomm
For true security, that random number generation needs to take place where the information is being exchanged. So Randaemon wants to create a device small enough to sit in your mobile phone.
The team’s goal is to sell to a manufacturer of chips or hardware that could use this technology in their own devices, someone like Apple, Qualcomm or Samsung. So in the future, your iPhone could have a tiny Randaemon device sitting inside it.
“We want to have 40-50 chips that we can send to interested parties,” explains Appelt. “Whoever decides they want to acquire the company can design and improve [the product] any way they want and build it for their particular devices.
“We don't sing about the final price is, our goal is to get the Series A closed as soon as we can because it's distracting.”
When they tell me they’re looking for a $2m Series A, I spit my tea out, and they laugh at me. The average Series A for Europe last year was a bit over €11m. So why not raise more money?
“We’re all semi-retired, we have very little salaries,” says Appelt. “Our costs are low. And we want to keep it this way because we prefer to maintain the value of the company, rather than having more cash on a monthly basis. We don’t buy million-dollar cars or planes.”
Their approach to collaborating and building the company is similarly low key.
Because part of the team is in San Diego and part in Warsaw, they only have a small window of time in the day to collaborate over email and FaceTime. Borodziński is offline and sleeping after about 10pm Warsaw time, so Tatarkiewicz in San Diego has started waking up at 3 or 4am California time.
“I don't do that,” says California-based Appelt. “I still like to sleep until at least 6am.”
Life after quantum
So what will they do when they exit their company to a huge multinational and walk off into the sunset with millions of dollars?
Appelt says he wants to sail around the world, and the team says they’ve convinced Borodziński to wait until their big payday to splash on a fancy new car. But Tatarkiewicz still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Will he start yet another company?
“I still have a few ideas that are not patented, so who knows. In 2025, we’ll let you know.”