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ILP Institute Insider

May 14, 2019

DUST Identity: Linking physical objects to digital records—securely

Ophir Gaathon is cofounder and CEO of DUST Identity, the MIT spinoff using synthetic diamond dust to create a state-of-the-art supply chain authentication system.

Daniel de Wolff

Efficient supply chain management leads to lower costs, higher security, and a faster production cycle. However, as supply chains grow larger, more digital and more dynamic, they become more vulnerable to piracy, counterfeits, and cyberattacks. Due to the global and modular nature of modern manufacturing, asset owners lack full control of their supply chains. Consider, for example, the recent reports pointing to Supermicro’s motherboards and non-approved part injections by subcontractors.

Led by co-founder and CEO Ophir Gaathon, DUST Identity utilizes engineered nano-diamonds to create an unclonable identity layer on any object. The Diamond Unclonable Security Tag (DUST) ensures that trusted and verifiable components are used, and their provenance tracked across their full lifecycle. DUST Identity officially launched in 2018 with $2.3 million in seed funding. The round was led by Kleiner Perkins, with New Science Ventures, Angular Ventures, and Castle Island Ventures also contributing. “There is a real need for a new technology like ours that will ensure supply chain integrity and build trust,” says Gaathon. “We provide unprecedented visibility in both upstream and downstream operations, right down to the individual components.”

Ophir Gaathon
Cofounder & CTO,
DUST Identity

The DUST solution is composed of three parts. First, is a coating made of engineered nano-diamonds encapsulated in a polymer matrix. As this material lands on the surface of objects it creates a wholly unique, unclonable fingerprint or barcode to which data can be anchored. Next, a scanning device allows for authentication of this diamond DUST fingerprint. Finally, they’ve developed an authenticator application that typically exists on the cloud but can be utilized on-premise. “You can think of DUST as a credit card,” says Gaathon. “The point of sale is the scanning device, and then every transaction is verified by our clearing-house.”

Gaathon and his co-founders, Jonathan Hodges and Dirk Englund, began exploring the properties of diamonds for quantum applications at MIT. They discovered that as they made smaller and smaller synthetic diamonds, the quantum behavior of those diamonds began to couple with the environment. This characteristic allows nano-diamonds to effectively function as sensors. Working with Ed Boyden at the Media Lab, they worked on using these nanoscopic diamonds to measure neural activity. “That was a really exciting time for us, working together at MIT. You can think of a diamond as a way to hold quantum numbers at room temperature, which is really an amazing piece of physics,” says Gaathon.

DARPA liked the approach and decided to fund the work. With DARPA’s direction, the team started to look at the security threats facing supply chains—specifically, how electronic parts can jeopardize defense platforms and critical assets. When Gaathon and his colleagues began to work on supply chain security tools, they recognized that a wide range of security solutions existed on the market, from RFID and holograms to security ink tags and DNA marking. However, in most cases, these alternative technologies provide only batch level security, and they are expensive or hard to authenticate, or simply cannot fit on small form factors. Additionally, these alternative technologies are not scalable or globally distributable, nor do they provide clear tamper evidence.

Another benefit of DUST is that it is extremely durable, safe, and possesses a unique set of properties, such as the nano-diamonds’ quantum defects. In fact, when authenticating a DUST Identity marking, Gaathon and his team are actually examining unique atomic defects inside the diamonds that make up the identity. “There are no other material systems that we know of that possess similar capabilities,” says Gaathon.

DUST provides an unclonable physical identity for any object, regardless of functionality. This object-agnostic approach means Gaathon and DUST have been asked to tag everything from semiconductors and hard drives to rivets and screws. Gaathon cites hardware and electronic manufacturing companies that service multiple markets (e.g., defense, aerospace, medical, and automotive) as particularly attractive partners for the young startup.

But the potential applications don’t end there. Gaathon and DUST Identity view the world through a lens of innovation that examines pain points in various industries. For example, how to associate the value of an object by immutably connecting it to trusted data (e.g., verifying that a piece of art is genuine). Verification of the safety and reliability of objects (e.g., safety of food and pharmaceuticals) presents another set of challenges that DUST can address and have a significant positive impact on. Another use case, and one where DUST is finding the most traction these days, is security. “If you don’t know where your parts are coming from, and they are going into high reliability assets, whether that’s defense platforms, data centers, or critical infrastructure, you introduce tremendous risk to those assets—and those risks are coming from your supply chain,” says Gaathon.

Their partnership with German multinational software corporation SAP is an example of their commitment to maintaining the integrity of both the object being tagged and the data associated with that object. DUST Identity validated the interface between the DUST solution and the open-source Hyperledger Fabric blockchain for SAP customers. By design, blockchains are resistant to data modification because data exists in multiple locations simultaneously. DUST Identity provides the critical physical-digital binding between blockchains and the physical world. This ensures that trust between the two is never compromised. “The ability to interface with blockchains is mission critical for us because we understand that supply chains today migrate into that technology.”

At its core, DUST Identity is an asset-centric supply chain security company interested in bringing value to its partners. “We’re passionate about solving supply chain security problems,” says Gaathon. “We want to work with market leaders that understand supply chain requirements and have the ability to influence how they operate.” At present, the DUST team is engaged with partners across industries and sectors, including several Fortune 500 companies.

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.