This article will be published in the next edition of the IBM Inspire Beyond Today’s Technology magazine (ibm.com/inspire/be)
IBM Mentor Day offers an opportunity for Benelux software developers to gain invaluable advice and support from industry experts. This year, first prize at the event went to Dutch software company Lucipher with their innovative solution for storing and exchanging data securely in the cloud.
“It’s great recognition for our company, and we gained really valuable insights from the event about how to get our product into the market,” says Evert Lammerts, CEO of Dutch software start-up Lucipher, after his company won first prize in the IBM innovation contest “Mentor Day” in Amsterdam in June for its high-security cloud storage platform.
Mentor Day supports fledgling software developers in the Benelux by offering them advice to help accelerate the development of their companies. The day was part of IBM’s Global Entrepreneur Program, a project to support budding technology start-ups.
Lucipher was awarded first prize by a special jury of business professionals, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and IBM specialists for the way its product broadens out the base of secure cloud services: It provides all the advantages of familiar cloud storage platforms like Dropbox and Google Drive but with end-to-end encryption, meaning that the data is encrypted before it enters into the cloud.
“We recognized that many industries are frustrated that they can’t take advantage of the cloud revolution because of security concerns,” explains co-founder Pieter van Beek. “There’s still not a good solution for hospitals to share electronic medical records safely, for example; academic and corporate research departments are desperate to collaborate with each other, but are very conscious of their intellectual property. Meanwhile, government civil servants are not allowed to use Dropbox or Google Drive. So there are many institutions crying out for this right now. Being part of Mentor Day really gave us insights into how we can target it at the people who need it most.”
Getting feedback and advice
The Mentor Day was attended by 11 mentors and three startups. Each start-up delivered a ten-minute pitch to three groups of mentors (both IBM professionals and external investors and entrepreneurs), followed by 30 minutes fielding questions and getting advice. Making use of this feedback, they then regrouped and repitched their ideas to a public group who voted on the winning proposition.
“The key takeaway for us was some of the basic business-model stuff,” says van Beek. “We only launched in June, so the IBM people really pushed us to think about who we now want to sell it to, since anybody could be an end-user of our product.”
As a result of that consultation, the Lucipher team have decided that the B2B market has greatest potential for them right now. “So we’ll sell licenses to software houses, so that they can integrate Lucipher into their products; to systems integrators who can put it into devices; and to resellers of cloud services, who can offer it to their own customers,” says Lammerts.
Following their participation in Mentor Day, the three participating start-ups now automatically enter the IBM Global Entrepreneur Program. Each of them will enjoy six months of intensive support and a three-year access to the IBM software portfolio. By taking first prize, Lucipher will also compete as a finalist in an IBM SmartCamp event in London later on in the year.
“Lucipher has huge market potential with their safe cloud environment,” says Ria Hyman, worldwide marketing lead IBM Global Entrepreneur Program. “IBM is looking forward to continuing working with them and helping them grow.”
Next-generation cloud storage: How Lucipher works
Lucipher bills itself as “next-generation” encrypted cloud storage. “We believe that in a few years from now, all cloud storage will be encrypted – it will just be a very normal commodity,” says van Beek.
Using Lucipher, data is encrypted at the upload stage. “So we can’t see the data being stored on our servers, but the user can still share it with other people: It’s a ‘common workspace.’ And all the cryptographic functionality is open-source, which means that you don’t have trust us or our software implicitly.” Importantly, unlike services like Dropbox, Lucipher does not synchronize to devices: It’s only available online. “That’s a deliberate security feature because if you share a folder with people and know that it will be synchronized to hundreds or thousands of devices (that could then be lost or stolen), you can’t really consider it to be safe.”
The files are secured at upload stage with symmetric encryption (AES encryption). The keys for unlocking the files are then further encrypted with assymetric ciphers (RSA encryption). “In short, it works a little bit like PGP [Pretty Good Privacy]. It uses symmetric cryptography to encrypt the message, and then assymetric cryptography to share messages between people.”
A useful analogy, says Lammerts, is to think of an actual locked mailbox in the physical world. “Symmetric encryption is where you and I both have the same key to that mailbox. If I put something in there, through its slot, we can both open it up and get what’s inside. With asymmetric encryption, there are two keys – one to the mailbox, and one for accessing the room containing the mailbox. Anybody can be given the key to enter the room and put things in the mailbox slot, but I’m the only one who also has a key for both the room and the mailbox, to take the contents out again. And if I then want you to have access to the contents, I just copy my mailbox key and put it into your secure mailbox and, since you’re the only one that can access your mailbox, we’ve created a secure system.”