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Gerard Vidal's PhD experimental physics studies into chaotic patterns had no obvious application in the "real world" when he completed it in 2010.
But through a series of serendipitous discoveries and a dose of business acumen he co-founded Enigmedia with Carlos Tomás. It promises to revolutionise industrial communications and internet of things (IoT) by using Vidal’s insights into chaotic patterns.
The IoT connects and integrates everything from home appliances to whole factories. It is estimated the IoT will consist of 25 billion connect sensors, machines and devices by 2020. These may range from smart thermostats in the home to factory production line robots.
For his work making the IoT secure Vidal and Enigmedia are the proud recipients of the Real Innovation Award's Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award. Judges were impressed how a pure science endeavour could result in such a timely and marketable product.
Celebrating innovation in all its quirks and individual challenges within the era of the Second Machine Age.
"When I wrote my PhD I simply loved experimental physics, I never realise I was going to start a business."
Vidal's PhD paper asked a seemingly simple question: how could you control pattern, how do patterns arise? What was the physical mechanism?
"When I wrote my PhD I simply loved experimental physics, I never realise I was going to start a business," he says.
"In nature there are a lot patterns which resemble each other. For example, a tiger and a zebra’s stripes. There is another example you can see on the Victoria crater of Mars and on the surface of a coffee.
"These are called convection patterns. How and why these patterns form was a mystery. Too investigate this for my PhD I heating silicon oil in a convective cell (like olive oil in a pan) until it started to form bundles.
"They appeared to obey some kind of law, so I started to write the maths of this pattern formation process. I started to see the patterns behave chaotically. That was curious because the maths was deterministic but you could never guess what the system was going to do next."
Vidal later realised the process could be used as an encryption method and Enigmedia have been able to mathematically prove it is secure.
The research also found the encryption was extremely efficient and therefore a unique opportunity. This is because the coded message can be transmitted in a binary format, like the bands of the convection pattern. This makes the network fast and efficient.
Applications like industrial communications demand rapid messaging. For example, a person receiving a streaming video will barely notice a 100 milliseconds (ms) delay, but in terms of machine-to-machine communication 10 ms is a minimum and one ms is ideal. This the latency Enigmedia can achieve with its cryptography. The service is more robust and up to 95% more efficient than current encryption standards. It also can be used by any kind of device regardless of its computing power and without impacting performance.
“There is no metric or a path to follow and you cannot succeed on your own - you need to leverage your network.”
Enigmedia's promise has attracted the help of Whitfield Diffie, who is best known for winning the Turing Award along with Martin Hellman. In 1976 they introduced the ideas of public-key cryptography and digital signatures, which are the foundation for most regularly-used security protocols on the internet today.
Investors have also seen the potential. Enigmedia has won the backing of private Madrid-based venture capital fund Mundi Ventures and Basque Venture Capital Management. Enigmedia has become an associate partner on Dell's IoT Solutions programme where it is looking for industrial, transport, logistics and energy clients.
"It is good to see what I've done is meaningful," reflects Vidal on that original, superficially esoteric paper.
He has even applied maths to networking to bring in investors. "Starting a business is also like a chaotic system, and I mean that literally – you can apply maths to the network, which is an application of the knowledge that is pretty interesting.
“In unstable environments, such as innovation markets, there is no clear go-to market and you have to figure out the product market fit. There is no metric or a path to follow and you cannot succeed on your own - you need to leverage your network. You need to look for the individuals who could really help you with the different questions you need answered in order to maximise the output.”