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EU funds UK research star to boost mobile phone security
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A young University of Bristol researcher, Jeremy O'Brien, is to get extra EU funding to help bring to market his trailblazing innovations in mobile communications security. These could allow mobile phone users to set the level of security they require for each call and increase both the security and ease of PC banking and other remote applications. The new technology will help prevent eavesdropping on calls. With further development it might eventually be applied to contacts with voice mailboxes, thus reinforcing protection against the type of phone hacking featured in the current UK scandal.

    EU funds UK research star to boost mobile phone security

    Jeremy O'Brien is an Australian who, partly thanks to support from the European Research Council (ERC), has chosen Bristol as his base for this work. He has already received 1.5 million euro (£1.3 million) in 2009 under the ERC starting grant scheme for promising researchers.

    His work aims to bring to ordinary consumers at low cost the same high levels of security that big corporations and governments have in place to prevent cyber-attacks. The researcher has developed a new technology called Quantum key distribution (QKD) which works by encoding a secret key in single particles of light (or photons).

    As any information gained by an eavesdropper would disturb photons, any such action is detectable. Concretely, users would generate a secure key on their mobile phone, smartphone or tablet when they connect with, for example, a bank cash withdrawal machine equipped with the necessary technology. Uploading this feature would allow them, via a single PIN number, to apply various different levels of encryption to personal and business calls and mails from smartphones. 

    Professor O'Brien's vision is that this miniaturised and scalable system would one day be embedded not only in mobile devices but also in other consumer electronics – for example to allow more secure operation of the systems already on the market which allow customers to use their mobile phones remotely to run and adjust electronic devices in the home.

    Prof. O'Brien will now receive up to 150 000 euro (£130 000) as a "proof of concept" grant from the ERC to help bridge what is known in business and research circles as the "valley of death", where promising research ideas often fall by the wayside for lack of funding to complete the final stage of transforming them into marketable innovation.

    Another UK-based researcher, Peter Jackson of Sheffield University, will get a similar ERC proof of concept grant, topping up 1.68 million euro (£1.45 million) already received, to further develop his work on the way social anxieties about food impact on government policy and business practice. This further work will involve making recommendations on issues such as food labelling and marketing, in order to improve food quality and meet consumer concerns. These research based services could be marketed to regulatory agencies and to manufacturers and retailers.

    Overall 30 ERC grant holders based throughout Europe will receive the extra money for proof of concept work. Seven of them will be based in UK universities.

    EU Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: "We need to invest in innovation at this time of economic crisis. Targeted EU backing can help bring these excellent UK ideas to market at a time when both mobile phone security and food safety issues have a higher profile than ever before."

    European Research Council President Helga Nowotny added: "Innovation takes place in companies. The 'proof-of-concept" scheme offers to ERC grant holders in the UK and elsewhere the chance to prove the innovative potential of their ideas and we hope that many will become successful products."

    Professor O'Brien's contact details are below. For a full list of UK award winners or to speak to any of the others, please contact the ERC – details below.


    The European Research Council launched the new funding initiative, the “Proof of Concept”, in March 2011, to contribute to stimulating innovation.

    Set up in 2007 by the EU, the European Research Council is the first pan-European funding organisation for frontier research. It aims to stimulate scientific excellence in Europe by encouraging competition for funding between the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age. The ERC also strives to attract top researchers from anywhere in the world to come to Europe.

    The ERC two core funding schemes are the 'ERC Starting Grants' for younger, early-career top researchers and the 'ERC Advanced Grants' for senior research leaders. This year, two smaller initiatives were added, namely the 'ERC Proof of Concept' scheme for researchers already holding an ERC grant and the 'ERC Synergy scheme', targeting small groups of principal investigators working together on one project.

    The ERC operates according to an "investigator-driven", or "bottom-up", approach, allowing researchers to identify new opportunities in any field of research. Since its launch, the ERC has funded over 2,200 frontier research projects throughout Europe and has become a "benchmark" of the competitiveness of national innovation systems as it complements existing funding schemes at national and European levels.

    The ERC, which is the newest, pioneering component of the EU's Seventh Research Framework Programme has a total budget of €7.5 billion from 2007 to 2013. It is led by the ERC Scientific Council, composed of 22 top scientists and scholars.

    ERC Press Contacts
    Madeleine Drielsma (Press and Communication adviser)
    Tel: +32 (0)2 298 76 31, Fax: +32 (0)2 297 96 20

    Maud Scelo (Press and Communication adviser)
    Tel: + 32 (0)2 298 15 21, Fax: + 32 (0)2 297 96 20

    Other contacts
    Jeremy O'Brien
    Professor of Physics & Electrical Engineering
    Director, Centre for Quantum Photonics, University of Bristol

    Please contact
    Administrator: Miss Rebecca Morton
    +44 (0)117 928 8737

    For more information, please contact the London press office on 020 7973 1971.
    Please note: all amounts expressed in sterling are for information purposes only.

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    Last update: 20/10/2011  |Top