Space-based quantum communications startup SpeQtral is bringing future-proof security to the commercial world, says co-founder Mr Lum Chune Yang.
Today, a range of futuristic technologies are being developed based on quantum phenomena—the ways that particles of matter and light behave and interact with each other. These technologies enable operations to be performed more accurately and efficiently than ever before.
Quantum-based technologies can also address one of the greatest security threats that we are facing today—the routine wiretapping by third parties of data transmitted over fibre optics. Even when the data is encrypted, public-key cryptography protocols used in secure data transmission are based on inherently breakable mathematical algorithms.
Fortunately, a method exists to keep malicious actors and eavesdroppers at bay. Called quantum key distribution (QKD), it uses the fundamental properties of quantum mechanics to transfer information between two entities.
“With QKD, keys delivered are tamper-proof and no progress in conventional computing or quantum computing would be able to break these encryption schemes,” says Mr Lum Chune Yang, co-founder and CEO of SpeQtral, a startup that uses satellite-based QKD to enable the next generation of secure communication networks.
The Only Constant is Change
A lifelong fascination with physics began during Mr Lum’s teenage years when he read a book about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that the speed of light is constant in all reference frames and that time and length ‘changes’ in order to keep the speed of light constant,” he shared.
After an early stint in quantum research and a career in the satellite telecommunications industry, Mr Lum spotted an opportunity for commercial applications of satellite-based QKD. Spun off from the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT), a Research Centre of Excellence hosted by the National University of Singapore (NUS), SpeQtral is based on the research of Mr Lum’s co-founder, CQT Principal Investigator and NUS Associate Professor Alexander Ling. “Alex’s research work is what the company is founded upon. As for me, I bring the space, business and telecommunication expertise,” Mr Lum said.
The startup is developing space-based quantum communication networks for the global delivery of secure encryption keys, and is commercialising satellite QKD technology developed at CQT. QKD satellites are able to establish a quantum-secured channel to the receiving parties and automate the secure delivery of symmetric encryption keys used for encrypting communication networks.
“These encryption keys, which are generated via a quantum process, are inherently random and use information embedded in particles of light (photons) as the bits (1s and 0s) that form the encryption keys,” Mr Lum explained. “Importantly, this method of key distribution is tamper-proof, because if an eavesdropper tries to steal the information, the quantum states carried by the photons would be disrupted and the eavesdropper’s presence would be revealed.”
Not only does quantum-based encryption technology provide safer communications in the present, it also provides an insurance against being cracked by a future quantum computer or conventional computers using better algorithms. “Symmetric encryption also has forward security, meaning no advances in conventional or quantum computational methods would be able to compromise encryption using this method,” Mr Lum said.
Extending the Range of Quantum Key Distribution
Today, QKD technology can already be deployed over optical fibre networks, but existing options are limited to approximately 50-100 kilometres in range. “SpeQtral is focused on bridging the long distance key distribution problem. CQT has developed and demonstrated miniature and rugged quantum light sources that can be deployed on small satellites—shoe-box sized satellites called CubeSats,” he said.
“These quantum satellites would be able to distribute encryption keys to anywhere on Earth, and essentially act as an overlay to any telecommunications network by delivering these keys to encrypt existing high bandwidth data communications links,” Mr Lum said. To date, SpeQtral is the only team that is building on technology heritage from successful in-space demonstrations of quantum light sources on CubeSats.
The startup has received US$1.9 million in seed funding in a round led by Space Capital, the venture fund of space investor and operator, Space Angels. Space Angels also participated in the round, as did Shasta Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures and SGInnovate. The co-founders will use the capital to expand the team, open offices in Singapore and the United States, and kick off a commercially-focused space-to-ground CubeSat quantum communication demonstration mission.
“We think that satellite QKD could essentially be integrated with telecommunications networks. We are looking to secure government and defence communication networks, as well as commercial telecommunication networks, and both these market segment would be a bit different in terms of adoption,” Mr Lum said.
To Infinity and Beyond
While Mr Lum is confident about the commercial value of quantum technology, he remains conscious of the lack of awareness among investors and the general public. “Many investors still do not know about quantum technologies and quantum communications specifically.”
“In addition, there is a lack of understanding of the potential threats to our communication networks and the need to implement new methods. Therefore, educating and informing the broader industry at scale would be an important task for us,” Mr Lum said.
Hiring talent also remains a challenge for SpeQtral, Mr Lum said, but he is thankful that both CQT and SGInnovate have built up a large network of Deep Tech expertise from which SpeQtral has been able to access.
“Besides supporting us in fundraising, SGInnovate also connected us with potential partners and customers, and gave us exposure in public forums. Having a Singapore Government-backed fund like SGInnovate as an investor was a vote of confidence in SpeQtral, especially when in discussions with international parties,” Mr Lum said.
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