By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
One might say that Erica Grant is on a roll.
The doctoral student in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) just won $6,500 in two recent competitions for her idea to improve the personal safety of individuals. The first event was the fall edition of the “Vol Court Pitch Competition & Speaker Series,” where she took the top prize of $1,500. About a month later, Grant secured $5,000 during the semi-annual “Boyd Venture Challenge.”
The funds will allow the Richmond, VA native to build a more advanced prototype for the device she has named the Quantum Lock. Grant showed version 1 at the two competitions run by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in UTK’s Haslam College of Business.
“Smart locks provide an illusion of safety,” Grant told us during a recent interview. Perhaps you have a smart lock at your home or office or have used a digital key and your cellphone to unlock a hotel room. If so, you may want to heed her warnings.
Grant explains that smart locks have two points of weakness – the standard key and the digital system. Hackers can use algorithms to break the codes of these commonly used Bluetooth locking devices.
“Many people are upgrading to smart locks because they offer the convenience of unlocking the door with a smartphone app and give the illusion of high-tech security,” Grant noted. “Unfortunately, most smart locks can be less secure than traditional locks.”
So, what’s her solution? Ironically, it’s something that draws on her doctoral studies in an emerging field called quantum computing, hence the name of her start-up – Quantum Lock Technologies LLC. Just as quantum computing allows computational work that is impossible on existing systems, Grant’s prototype utilizes a quantum property found in light to dramatically increase the security of smart locks. It does so by creating unique keys that cannot be traced.
Building version 1 was somewhat of a challenge.
“People are just now seeing the potential of quantum computing,” Grant explains. “Parts that I need are just now being made.”
Those limitations have not deterred her vision for the devices or her passion for entrepreneurship.
How did Grant become enamored with aligning her doctoral studies with a technology to improve door security?
She says that it started early in life. Her father started his own company, and Grant always wanted to follow in those footsteps by starting her own business. That passion aligned with an opportunity during her undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech University.
Grant served as President of the Virginia Tech Chapter of an organization named Help Save the Next Girl. The national non-profit, which seeks to sensitize young women and girls to predatory danger, was formed in honor of Morgan Dana Harrington, a 20-year-old Virginia Tech student who was abducted and murdered in 2009.
“That’s where I developed my passion for wanting to keep people safe,” Grant says.
As she pursues the next iteration of her technology, she’s actively recruiting people who share her vision to help with the cause. Grant has already linked-up with Kevin Fillers and the team at Innovative Design Inc. that helps start-ups with prototyping and Andrew May and the team at CodeTank Labs. She’s also looking for electrical engineers, computer scientists, and business people who are passionate about security.
One fact that was clear to us: Grant is intent on pursuing Quantum Lock.
“I want to see it in the market,” she says. “I don’t want it licensed and shelved.”