CERN inspires entrepreneurs for email encryption

Three young entrepreneurs inspired by their time at CERN have launched ProtonMail, a secure email service with a sophisticated encryption system to deter would-be spies.

Computer scientist Andy Yen has been working at CERN since 2009 through his home institutes CalTech and Harvard University in the US. Along with two of his CERN colleagues he recently co-founded a startup company called ProtonMail.

ProtonMail is a new service that provides encrypted email. "The technology means that our email system does not allow us (or anyone else) to read user emails," says Yen. "Access to user data is technically impossible because of the way we have implemented encryption."

The end-to-end encryption means that when you send an email with ProtonMail, your data is already encrypted by the time it reaches the their servers. So the team has no access to your messages, and as they cannot decrypt them, they cannot read them or share them with third parties.

The idea for the company was born last summer in a CERN cafeteria where CERN physicists and engineers regularly share ideas over lunch or coffee.

"Our team met at CERN and early ProtonMail hackathons were held at the famous CERN Restaurant One," says Yen. "We would not be where we are today without the assistance of the over 300 CERN students and staff who offered to test our service, and the informal advice and feedback given to us by members of the CERN computer security team."

"CERN is a true hub for technological collaboration and it's an environment fostering entrepreneurship," says Giovanni Anelli, head of CERN's Knowledge Transfer group. "Over 10,000 scientists from more than 100 different countries and 600 universities and institutes collaborate today with CERN. Knowledge sharing among this large academic community is essential in the scientific discourse and inspires many additional new ideas. ProtonMail is one such example."

ProtonMail was launched last week to the general public. Their Threat Model describes both the threats ProtonMail is designed to guard against, and also the threats it is not designed to counter.