Last 18 April, the European Commission – as already announced in the Joint Cyber Defence Communication – signed the EU Cyber Solidarity Act: a 1.1 billion euro plan (2/3 of which is part of the DEP – Digital Europe program) that consists of a pan-European infrastructure to connect SOCs – Security Operation Centres – throughout Europe. The aim is to analyse, intercept and prevent possible cyber attacks, but also to support the development of cutting-edge technologies to stop any kind of cyber threat.
Cybersecurity is therefore a scenario with which one must become increasingly familiar. In a digitization-driven world, the innovation ecosystem works relentlessly to protect and prevent damage and risks that can compromise and damage data sensitivity and privacy.
Preserving, therefore, the most ‘intimate’ and sensitive sphere of the network. Working hard on the most diverse aspects of cybersecurity is also Italian research, which over time is achieving significant spin-offs in the sector.
Among the most significant projects, in terms of results and synergies between public research and the entrepreneurial fabric, is iPognac: a device that allows complete automation of a Quantum Key Distribution system. A technology, born in the laboratories of the University of Padua, that simplifies the exchange of cryptographic keys used to communicate encrypted messages using extremely secure algorithms. The iPognac-based security system can be used in a variety of contexts: academic, government, commercial, and..space.
From iPognac’s combination of progress and success comes ThinkQuantum, a spin-off from Università di Padova, which we talked about with Giuseppe Vallone, Professor at the University of Padua and Co-Founder of ThinkQuantum, who was one of the 7 winners of the IPA AWARD in Dubai 2020 with this technology.
Along with Giuseppe Vallone, iPognac and ThinkQuantum project members are Costantino Agnesi, Marco Avesani, and Paolo Villoresi.
From the iPognac presentation video – on the University of Padua’s website – I was struck by Cybersecurity Ventures’ figure of some $6 trillion in damage caused by cybercrime in 2021. For 2022, in your opinion, is the figure still growing? What scenario do you imagine in the coming years?
The figure is the result of studies by experts in the field that we obtained when we made the video. The figure is growing, but we are not in the business of studying these trends but developing solutions to protect ourselves against the attacks of today and tomorrow. Certainly, the interest in quantum technologies is growing a lot. We see this in Europe and domestically, where both public and private institutions have shown a lot of interest in trying out quantum cryptography. The iPognac patent has been licensed to ThinkQuantum, a spinoff of the University of Padua, and we are now doing several demonstrations of the technology in Italy and Europe and have already sold several devices that exploit the patent. At this stage of the market, the customers are mainly infrastructure and service operators, but given the excellent results, we are very happy with, we expect that more and more end-users will approach this technology soon. There is a growing awareness of these issues and also an interest in new solutions that are certainly more secure, as the advent of quantum computing will put classical cryptography at risk.
What is the ‘industry’ challenge you set yourself when you started this research project and what goal do you want to achieve (realistically)?
Ours is a university course that started with almost 20 years of study and research. In 2019 we came to realize the patent – it is me and 3 other inventors – which has very interesting characteristics as a source of quantum states for quantum cryptography. At this point we thought of founding a spinoff – ThinkQuantum in fact – to put into practice what we have learned in 20 years of research and to mature the technology at the application level. The entrepreneurial path was started because the university can do research but cannot make products, products are made by companies. The important thing for us is that right now – in Italy – the competition is still at an early stage. The two competitors that have been on the market the longest are non-European, which excludes them from recent European tenders or installations in sensitive environments.
In Italy, two other spinoffs have started activity in this area in recent years. The elements that differentiate us are the high degree of industrialization of our products, the applications in space as well as in fiber, and the proprietary technology in quantum random number generation. We are very satisfied with our results because we see the fruit of a whole path that has taken the iPognac from a university prototype to an essential component of a product on the market.
iPognac fits well in aerospace (academic, government, or commercial) as quantum communication is realized in the air and by satellite. Have there been any openings on this front? Have you tried or ground new areas where it can be applied?
There have been openings. A lot has changed since we presented the IPA. Today, I am the university coordinator of a European project that aims to develop satellite components. Within this project is ThinkQuantum, our spinoff, which has the task of designing a quantum satellite transmitter with the iPognac. We are currently in a payload design and development phase, and by the end of 2025, we expect to have the device fully built and tested to be mounted on a satellite.
Not only that, but we are also within another very important European project called SAGA. This is a European Space Agency project that aims to build a constellation of satellites. The project is still at a preliminary stage, in the sense that we are still finalizing the design of the system. I can say that it is certainly an ambitious project precisely because of the goal of building an entire European quantum communication constellation.
I can say that they are both great projects that allow us to continue the development of our products. In and with these projects, the value of the patent has been recognized as an important and decisive technology to realize these devices.
What did participating in IPA and being awarded in a context such as the Dubai EXPO mean for your research team? And more generally, what value do you think such events have for Italian research? What more can be done in your opinion on this front to support research teams in the creation of new companies/spinoffs?
If I have to be honest, the spin-offs of iPognac are independent of IPA participation and victory. At least, from what we have evidence of. Perhaps yes, I would have expected a few more contacts through IPA but I admit it didn’t happen. The prize money will be used to develop new ideas on this technology in research. However, if I am honest, the amount of the prize does not allow for substantial project development. Those who work with this type of technology have very high costs: most of the development requires a lot of hardware, which is very expensive. A prize such as IPA had, for the university and ThinkQuantum, more of a symbolic and marketing value than a practical one because it can hardly bear the high development costs of this technology.
Knowledge Share platform: how did you get to know the platform? What role did and does the KS platform play in the field of Research and Technology Transfer at your university?
I think Knowledge Share is very important and certainly needs to be enhanced but I have no direct experience of its useful use. Or rather, so far we have not had any contacts through Knowledge Share. But it is very important to develop the tool because it allows you to introduce technologies to the various companies that are on the market. From Knowledge Share, I would expect that it would be the platform that would increasingly put those who produce the technology and those who buy it in contact. A scouting activity, in my opinion, would take KS a step further: those who manage the database could be a filter for the match between researcher and investor to be implemented.
What are the plans for the future of this project: the roadmap to be followed and milestones to be reached?
The goal is to fly a satellite with our technology on board. The device is already on the ground. The goal is to make this technology a reference for satellite quantum communications.
“iPognac” is a technology on the Knowledge Share platform: iPognac: a high-performance qubit source for quantum key distribution | Knowledgeshare (knowledge-share.eu)