Information technology security start-up takes top award

PicoPUF wins Invent Award in the North that pitches hi-tech geniuses against each other

 PicoPUF was founded in 2013 by three  researchers from Queen’s University (above). Photograph: Alan Betson

PicoPUF was founded in 2013 by three researchers from Queen’s University (above). Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Belfast spin-out from Queen’s University’s Centre for Secure Information Technologies is the Northern Ireland start-up with the “most global commercial potential”.

PicoPUF has just won the 2015 Invent Award in the North, an annual, highly coveted talent competition that pitches the best local hi-tech geniuses against each other to win hard cash and a chance to tell investors and partners in California about their dreams.

The awards, organised by NISP Connect, the Northern Ireland Science Park’s non-profit established to promote innovation, have a track record of helping past winners catch the eye of impressive investors.

Last year’s winner Plotbox, the Co Antrim-based husband- and-wife team who came up with innovative cemetery and crematorium software, caught the eye of 500 Startups, the Silicon Valley venture capital seed fund and accelerator founded by former PayPal and Google employees.

This year’s winner PicoPUF was founded in 2013 by three Queen’s researchers – Neil Hanley, Maire O’Neill, and ChongyanGu. They developed a tiny device that guarantees that even the cheapest microchip can be equipped with strong, unique authentication.

High security

PicoPUF’s semiconductor IP core will enable any grade of device to have the highest possible grade of security – something Neil Hanley believes will prove extremely attractive to a lot of companies.

“There is a perfect storm happening in IT security right now,” Hanley says. “The huge number of devices on the market, combined with the low-cost nature of these devices, makes it impossible to use heavily computationally resourced security solutions. Lightweight security will be a gamechanger and we are set to capitalise on that.”

The Belfast start-up is in the process of raising £250,000 (€337,000) to finance its next stage plans and Hanley hopes the Invent award, as well as the prize fund of £13,000, will help speed up the process.

It has already applied to patent its inventions and hopes to bring its first product to market by early 2016. According to Steve Orr, director of NISP Connect: “This year we have seen some incredible new inventions entered and it’s really encouraging to see the strength of our start-up scene accelerating here in Northern Ireland.”

The competition, which is sponsored by Bank of Ireland, attracted more than 82 entries in six categories, which were whittled to just 12 finalists.

The judging panel of the 2015 competition, which included Michael O’Hara, a former senior Microsoft and Nortel executive and currently chief marketing officer of Boston-based GSMA, chose six category winners, including PicoPUF, which came out top in both the electronics category and the overall award.

But the passion and enthusiasm displayed by all the short-listed start-ups and in this year’s awards could eventually make them all winners in the long run.

Category winners

So while PicoPUF may have been judged to be the next big thing to come out of Northern Ireland, the other category winners in the Invent 2015 awards are definitely worth keeping an eye out for. They include; NextGenBiopesticides – pioneering insect parasitic nematodes selectively bred to be a safe, effective biopesticide for the control of crop pest insects. Cognition Video – is developing a processing framework that enables the effective understanding of media content using intelligent automated algorithms Re-Vana – working on a new drug delivery system that provides long-term benefits for patients suffering from eye diseases that lead to blindness. ChipIn – is creating a platform for goal setting that provides motivation via rewards that are either crowd-funded or self-funded. Skunkworks Surfboard Company – developed robust soft (learner) surfboards that are 100 per cent recyclable and unbreakable.

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