A deep tech startup building cryptographic solutions to secure hardware, software, and communications systems for a future when quantum computers may render many current cybersecurity approaches useless is today emerging out of stealth mode with $7 million in funding and a mission to make cryptographic security something that cannot be hackable, even with the most sophisticated systems, by building systems today that will continue to be usable in a post-quantum future.
PQShield (PQ being short for “post-quantum”), a spin out from Oxford University, is being backed in a seed round led by Kindred Capital, with participation also Crane Venture Partners, Oxford Sciences Innovation and various angel investors, including Andre Crawford-Brunt, Deutsche Bank’s former global head of equities.
PQShield was founded in 2018, and its time in stealth has not been in vain.
The startup claims to have the UK’s highest concentration of cryptography PhDs outside academia and classified agencies, and it is one of the biggest contributors to the NIST cybersecurity framework (alongside academic institutions and huge tech companies), which is working on creating new cryptographic standards, which take into account the fact that quantum computing will likely make quick work of breaking down the standards that are currently in place.
“The scale is massive,” Dr Ali El Kaafarani, a research fellow at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute and former engineer at Hewlett-Packard Labs, who is the founder and CEO of PQShield said of that project. “For the first time we are changing the whole of public key infrastructure.”
And according to El Kaafarani, the startup has customers — companies that build hardware and software services, or run communications systems that deal with sensitive information and run the biggest risks from being hacked.
They include entities in the financial and government sectors that it’s not naming, as well as its first OEM customer, Bosch. El Kaafarani said in an interview that it is also in talks with at least one major communications and messaging provider exploring more security for end-to-end encryption on messaging networks. Other target applications could include keyless cars, connected IoT devices, and cloud services.
The gap in the market the PQShield is aiming to address is the fact that while there are already a number of companies exploring the cutting edge of cryptographic security in the market — they include large tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft, Hub Security, Duality, another startup out of the UK focused on post-quantum cryptography called Post Quantum and a number of others — the concern is that quantum computing will be utilised to crack even the most sophisticated cryptography such as the RSA and Elliptic Curve cryptographic standards.
This has not been much of a threat so far since quantum computers are still not widely available and used, but there have been a number of signs of a breakthrough on the horizon.
El Kaafarani says that PQShield is the first startup to approach that predicament with a multi-pronged solution aimed at a variety of use cases, including solutions that encompass current cryptographic standards and provide a migration path the next generation of how they will look — meaning, they can be commercially deployed today, even without quantum computers being a commercial reality, but in preparation for that.
“Whatever we encrypt now can be harvested, and once we have a fully functioning quantum computer people can use that to get back to the data and the sensitive information,” he said.
For hardware applications, it’s designed a System on Chip (SoC) solution that will be licensed to hardware manufacturers (Bosch being the first OEM). For software applications, there is an SDK that secures messaging and is protected by “post-quantum algorithms” based on a secure, Signal-derived protocol.
Thinking about and building for the full spectrum of applications is central to PQShield’s approach, he added. “In security it’s important to understand the whole ecosystem since everything is about connected components.”
Some sectors in the tech world have been especially negatively impacted by the coronavirus and its consequences, a predicament that has been exacerbated by uncertainties over the future of the global economy.
I asked El Kaafarani if that translated to a particularly tricky time to raise money as a deep tech startup, given that deep tech companies so often work on long-term problems that may not have immediate commercial outcomes.
Interestingly, he said that wasn’t the case.
“We talked to VCs that were interested in deep tech to begin with, which made the discussion a lot easier,” he said. “And the fact is that we’re a security company, and that is one of the areas that is doing well. Everything has become digitised, and we have all become more heavily reliant on our digital connections. We ultimately help make the digital world more secure. There are people who understand that, and so it wasn’t too difficult to talk to them and understand the importance of this company.”
Indeed, Chrysanthos Chrysanthou, partner at Kindred Capital, echoed that sentiment:
“With some of the brightest minds in cryptography, mathematics and engineering, and boasting world-class software and hardware solutions, PQShield is uniquely positioned to lead the charge in protecting businesses from one of the most profound threats to their future,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier to support the team as it works to set a new standard for information security and defuse risks resulting from the rise of quantum.”