iTwin was developed in Singapore (Photo: William Cho)
One morning in August 2007, Mr. Anantharaman Lakshminarayanan (Lux for short), copied some of his personal financial data onto his external storage device, placed it in has bag, and left for the office. Lux was a researcher working on security protocols and algorithms for personal content digital rights management (DRM) at the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R), a research and development (R&D) institute under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) of the Republic of Singapore (Singapore) . At lunch, he wanted to access his personal files but realized that he had accidentally lost his external storage device. As an engineer and software security specialist by trade, Lux was overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness at the thought of his personal data being compromised when he realized that his external storage device was unsecure; no passwords or other security measures protected his sensitive data.
Lux realized that what happened to him can easily happen to anyone, as it is easy to become complacent and believe mobile devices will not be lost. At the same time, it can be burdensome to password protect everything and take other complicated security precautions. While on his way home, he thought that if he was able to develop protocols for secure data sharing among different people, he should be able to use his experience to develop a device that enables secure data sharing between his personal devices.
Lux spent the next few months researching different available options for secure data sharing and how they could be used in a new invention. He considered remote access software applications (which allow a user to access their data remotely), and while he found some free software on the Internet, he discovered that the adoption rate was low because users were required to perform the initial configuration and subsequent management, which can be technically difficult, and a login user name and password are required. With so many different applications requiring passwords – work email, personal email, Internet banking, databases, and so on – he knew that many people would balk at the idea of having to remember yet another password just to access their data. Passwords also instil a false sense of security, as many people often reuse their passwords because they have so many to remember. “As an information security professional, I cringe when an application requires the user to create a login name and password,” explained Lux. “Humans are not designed to remember passwords; in this age, there are simply too many passwords to remember.” Lux’s research then turned to online “cloud” data storage, which is networked online storage hosted on computer servers by third parties. While his research found this to be a rather popular solution, the third parties providing the storage technically have unauthorized access to a user’s sensitive data. This made Lux more than uncomfortable. He surmised that cloud storage would also be unsuitable for many other users with similar concerns.
As 2007 drew to a close, Lux knew from his research that there was a real need to develop a simple and secure way to transfer data between two computers. Lux already had a solution in mind – the incorporation of a remote access software application with a Universal Serial Bus (USB, a communication protocol for computers) device about the size of a portable flash storage drive – but he was not sure how to make it not only secure, but also simple enough for a novice computer user to use. After sharing his idea with his colleague, Kal Takru, the two spent a lot of time discussing possible solutions over many lunches and cups of coffee.
One evening some time later, Lux saw his USB flash storage device plugged into his computer and realized that he could create a USB device that splits into two, where one half is plugged into the computer and the other half is taken with the user and plugged into another computer. He quickly explained his idea to Kal, who was intrigued by the concept and its simplicity but was sure something like it was already invented. After conducting searches of literature, patents and available products, the two realized that there nothing like it had ever been developed.
The first generation prototype of iTwin, formerly Twin USB (Photo: iTwin)
Lux and Kal’s research paid off when they developed a two-sided USB key that, when unplugged and connected to two computers that have Internet access, can provide secure access to the same files between the two machines. Called the iTwin, upon first glance the device looks like any other USB flash storage drive, however that is where the similarities end. The iTwin can be split into two halves, both of which can connect to a computer’s USB port. The part of the device that stays plugged into the computer is the “home unit,” and the part that goes with the user is the “portable unit.”
The device is actually two small USB keys, with a USB connector on one side of each and a different connection type on the other. This different connector allows the home unit and portable unit to plug into one another. When the two keys, or “twins,” are plugged together, they are electronically paired and create a randomly generated encryption and decryption code that is mutually shared between the two units that allows them to communicate securely with each other – and only each other – over a virtual cable through the Internet. There is no manual software installation required and plugging either USB end of the paired device into a computer (for example, a user’s home computer) will open up a virtual folder. Any files that the user wants to access remotely are placed into this folder, into which they are virtually copied. From the user’s perspective the files appear to be copied, but in actuality this “copying” is simply telling the device what files are to be shared.
After this, the user can unplug the portable unit portion of the device while the home unit stays connected to the home computer. The portable unit can then be taken and plugged into any remote computer with an Internet connection. Once it’s connected, the iTwin gives the user full access to all the files securely shared in the virtual folder back on the home computer. It also will create a virtual folder on the remote computer, and grant access to any files in that folder to a user of the home computer (should there be one). Changes can be made directly to any shared file on either computer without the need to first copy the file locally. An ingenious part of the invention is that both a remote user and a user at the home computer can make changes to any shared file on either computer without the need to copy it or save different versions. No user created passwords, technical support or complicated setup procedures are necessary, and the only requirement for the two keys on both computers to securely communicate is an Internet connection.
A diagram from the PCT application for iTwin (Publication No. WO/2009/131538, Patentscope Search)
Lux and Kal knew that they had a breakthrough invention with real marketability in their hands, but without adequate funding it would probably be relegated to the drawing board. In addition, they also wanted to protect their invention from any possible copiers vying to cash in on their hard work. If they wanted to move their invention forward and successfully commercialize it, they knew that intellectual property (IP) protection was crucial. The two drew up detailed plans for their invention and presented it to I2R’s IP Review Committee (the Committee), which evaluates inventions for potential IP protection and commercial application. The committee is comprised of a panel of I2R experts and officers from Exploit Technologies (Exploit), the strategic marketing and commercialization arm of A*STAR.
At first review, the Committee was not convinced of the value of the invention and its commercial potential. Facing possible rejection, the inventors persevered and managed to convince the Senior Vice President of the Science and Engineering Commercialization Division of Exploit that the iTwin indeed had commercial potential. In February 2008, A*STAR filed a patent application in Singapore with the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) and internationally through the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system for its invention. In January 2011, the patent was granted in Singapore by the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.
An influx of investment allowed for the development of a more refined version of iTwin (Photo: iTwin)
With a patent application made, the inventors went about securing funding for their invention to develop prototypes and eventually bring it to the market. Initially, Lux and Kal spent most of their time working on developing the remote software module for iTwin. As this module neared completion, they realized that they needed funds to develop the hardware component of the invention. As I2R adheres to a strict R&D budget, the inventors had to approach Exploit for funding from the Commercialization of Technology (COT) fund. Their request was granted, and they received S$50,000 for six months to develop the first generation hardware prototype. Exploit enjoys significant success in attracting outside investment to I2R projects with strong commercialization potential. For example, in 2009 for every S$10 granted to COT funded R&D projects such as iTwin, S$8 of it is from external funding. In addition, Exploit provides engineering development grants of up to S$1 million for the development and refinement of proof-of-concept prototypes over a period of three to twelve months.
Thanks to Exploit’s successful COT funding program, the inventors were able to secure funding for the development of the first and second generation of iTwin prototype. Following the second round of funding, Lux and Kal showed off their invention at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show (one of the world’s leading consumer electronics trade shows), at UnConference 2009 Singapore (a start-up focused event to attract investors), at the 2009 TechCrunch 50 conference (which was organized to show venture capitalists leading new technology), at several roundtables with industry players organized by Exploit, and to various interested companies. All of these events earned iTwin a lot of interest and positive press, which then gave the inventors a third round of COT funding to bring the invention from prototype to commercialized product.
Shortly thereafter, Innosight and Walden, two venture capital firms, offered the inventors a combined investment term sheet (a key document that signifies serious final round discussions for investment) seeking to invest in the technology. Moreover, in November 2011 the startup closed a second round of funding. Securing a patent early on turned out to be a key decision making factor when both firms decided to invest in iTwin. With funds now at hand, Lux and Kal were finally ready to bring their invention to the market.
With a company established, Lux and Kal knew that protecting their name was vital to developing a strong brand image. The original name for their invention was “Twin USB”, but because of trademark concerns surrounding the use of “USB,” the inventors decided upon the “iTwin” name. Because the company has only a single product, it decided that having the same name for both company and product would be in its best interest. In October 2010 the newly formed company applied for a trademark with IPOS for “iTwin,” and it was officially registered in January 2011.
The final, commercialized product (Photo: iTwin)
When determining how to best commercialize their invention, Lux and Kal first looked into licensing. At the roundtables organized by Exploit, several companies expressed an interest in licensing the technology, however many were looking for a product that they could immediately market, instead of undergoing the manufacturing process themselves. After further evaluation, the inventors decided that these companies were unable to realize their vision for iTwin, and decided to launch a spin-off company.
Lux and Kal thankfully had the full support of I2R and Exploit, as they identified iTwin early on as an innovation that had market potential. Through the COT funding grants, Exploit helped the inventors develop their prototype and secure venture capital, and was therefore very supportive of the idea of a spin-off company. With the funding from Innosight and Walden, in 2009 the inventors founded iTwin Pte. Ltd., (iTwin) a spin-off company of I2R with the same name as Lux and Kal’s invention. After working with various manufacturing, design and legal partners between 2009 and 2010, the company received certification from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States of America (USA) and European Conformity (CE) certification for its final product. The company launched the iTwin product on October 10, 2010, through its website for worldwide sale. As of 2012, iTwin is available in the USA and Europe at two major retail stores – Staples and Mediaworld, respectively.
After a mere six months on the market, by April 2011 iTwin was already making waves in the technology world. The technology has earned positive reviews in the press, and in March 2011 it won the prestigious Red Dot product design award. In early November 2011, iTwin also earned the Consumer Electronics Show (an annual international technology trade show held in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA) Innovations 2012 Design and Engineering Award. Recognition in the technology field continued to come in, and later in November 2011 iTwin won the Popular Science Magazine Award followed by earning a spot in Accounting Today’s Top New Products of 2012. These achievements recognize iTwin’s quality and simple yet trend setting design, and puts the company and its innovative product on the path to commercial success. When describing the future goals for the company, Lux said “we hope people will try iTwin for themselves and see how it can make their life better.”
The invention and successful commercialization of iTwin shows that innovation can arise out of the most common occurrences. People unfortunately lose and misplace data all the time, but when it happened to Lux that summer afternoon, he and his partner Kal decided to innovate new technology from this misfortune. With the help of a supportive research institution and strategic use of the IP system, they secured funding and launched a spin-off company, which brought their idea to reality and made remote access to sensitive data a lot safer and easier.