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11 December 2023

It requires collaboration with people of different expertise to push your idea forward  

Kurt Nielsen is one of the pioneers behind encryption and blockchain technology for protecting sensitive data while in use, and co-founder of Partisia. Here, he tells about the journey from researcher to CEO.

It all began as two research projects at Aarhus University, where a small team of researchers with diverse backgrounds in cryptography, business economics, and software development joined forces. The collaboration resulted in a groundbreaking cryptography technology, and in 2008, the tech company Partisia was born.

The CEO and partner Kurt Nielsen with a background in mathematics and economics, was involved from the beginning – from the first idea conceived by Professor Ivan Damgård at the Department of Computer Science at Aarhus University to the foundation of Partisia, which is now a leader in advanced cryptography and blockchain technologies for the financial sector, 15 years later.

At that time, Kurt Nielsen was fully engaged in his PhD when he got into a conversation with Professor Ivan Damgård. Over the following years, they worked closely on developing and deploying the new encryption technology, and a collaboration with the food producer Danisco became their major breakthrough.

Danisco, undergoing extensive restructuring at the time, became the first company to adopt the new encryption technology. The collaboration was the industry breakthrough that the research team had been working towards for years – both technologically and commercially. From then, things gained momentum, and more public and private collaborations followed.

From technological breakthrough to entrepreneurial adventure

From thinking you have the solution to creating a viable business is a long journey, says Kurt Nielsen. Partisia was an early adopter of a completely new technology, and it took many years before the market was ready to embrace it, he explains.

Along the way, one encounters a lot of resistance and difficult discussions about everything from strategy to finance. One must be prepared for that, and to have a chance at success, it requires the team to challenge each other, listen, and compromise when necessary.

What does it mean to have a background as a researcher when establishing a company?

“In my work as a researcher and lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, new ideas constantly emerge. I am driven by these ideas and gain energy from them. I believe that many researchers have the same driving force—the key to success with a product or a company lies in the commercial approach, and it varies greatly from researcher to researcher.

Not everyone has it, but there are incredibly talented basic researchers who have a good understanding of how to take an idea forward and who understand that it requires collaboration with people with different expertise to advance one’s idea.

Personally, throughout my university career, I have always been an ‘entrepreneur,’ and early in my career, I helped some friends start a company. However, the dot-com bubble burst, and I returned to the university for a PhD. while considering my future options.

Being an entrepreneur is a state of mind. You must constantly look for new opportunities and be interested in assembling strong teams.

This applies internally in a company and at the university when working together on research projects. The team is crucial.”

Where does this entrepreneurial spirit come from?

“That’s a good question. I have always sought out opportunities, trying to create something through my work and not be locked into a specific job for a lifetime. In reality, I have never considered myself an employee, even though I have received and continue to receive a salary as a researcher. It is the desire to create and develop that drives me.”

About Partisia
Partisia is a spinout from Aarhus University established by internationally renowned researchers and experts in advanced cryptography, business economics, and software development, with experience bringing research ideas to market. The combination of skills enables Partisia to deliver solutions that are both robust and highly innovative in a timely manner.

As a pioneer, Partisia has been selling secure multiparty computation (MPC) and other software solutions for privacy protection since 2008. Initially focusing on secure auctions for commodities such as production contracts, energy-related products, and auctions used for the sale of spectrum licenses.

Since the first commercial use, MPC technology has matured significantly, becoming more agile and notably faster, gradually transforming MPC into a generic infrastructure for privacy-preserving computations.

In parallel with this development, Partisia has developed infrastructure for managing encryption keys and a generic infrastructure for secure computation, as well as various applications across platforms from cloud computing to blockchain technologies.

As part of the commercialization strategy, selected companies have been moved and matured into separate spinouts alongside investors and other business partners, namely (cryptographic key management) and Partisia (applications and infrastructure combining MPC and blockchain technologies). In 2022, Sepior was sold to a major American blockchain company, Blockdaemon, and Partisia is now actively scaling up, focusing on quantum computers.

Read about DIREC’s focus area Digital Tech Startups

The Partisia team assembled in the summer of 2023