Safe storage of your cryptocurrency is paramount these days with hacks becoming more and more prevalent. Using a cold storage wallet is one of the safest ways to store your Bitcoin, Ethereum, or other Cryptocurrencies. NGRAVE’s mission is simple – to eradicate the loss and the malicious hacking of your crypto. In the interview we speak with Ruben Merre, the CEO and Founder of NGRAVE.
Ruben Merre is a serial entrepreneur who launched his first business when he was 8 years old. He has led & launched many tech projects both in the US and internationally, including several automated algorithmic trading platforms.
1) Tell us about your background Ruben. What got you interested in cryptocurrency and starting NGRAVE?
I was already pretty intrigued about blockchain back in 2015 when I first really came across bitcoin. I was working out the vision 2020 strategy for an international bank at the time. However, I typically look at the intrinsic value of projects, and it was too early for me at the time to invest. It took until late 2017 before I really started looking under the hood of the technology. An example that came to mind was the scenario where a tsunami wipes away all the land near the coast of a development country, with a dictator assuming ownership of the population’s properties, merely pointing to his centralized database in which these people supposedly never had any land in the first place.
The power of blockchain to establish a shared and single immutable version of the truth, able to back up the rightful ownership claims of all these people, really inspired me. I wanted to contribute to that. So I both started the Blockchain Strategy program at Oxford University, and in parallel I started buying my first crypto to also better understand what was going on in practice, opposed to theory. It became immediately clear how absurdly unsafe the industry was. This in part is what led us three co-founders of NGRAVE to question the existing solutions in the market, and ultimately, the decision to build something new and better.
2) Do you have any hobbies? What do you do outside of work?
As an entrepreneur, my hobby is my job and vice versa. And it kind of needs to be, otherwise you can never keep doing it, as it is extremely intense and demanding. If you want to build out a company like NGRAVE, with a product that is complex in that it is hardware, security, and cryptocurrency, all at the same time, and with the ambition to sell worldwide, at least 99% of your time goes directly towards that.
However, I do have other completely unrelated passions such as composing and performing music, something that is incredibly important to me. I sing and play a few instruments and have also published some of my own repertoire on platforms like iTunes and Spotify. All under my singer songwriter alias, which I won’t be sharing just yet! I also swim, snowboard, surf, run, and am sort of the lifelong learner type. For example, I aim to read a book every other week, specifically those that provide a lot of insights into how to manage the stage my company is in at that moment. During my previous jobs, I also always combined work with a postgraduate degree study. So meanwhile, I have 6 postgraduate degrees in business topics. I also lived, studied, and worked abroad, which was great for one of my other favorite pastimes: learning languages. I studied about ten and currently am fluent in six, something that I believe will also aid a lot in building relationships with new communities that might fall in love with our products.
3) When and why did you decide to start NGRAVE? Why NGRAVE versus another hardware wallet?
NGRAVE’s story starts in 2017, when CTO Xavier Hendrickx’ previous project was hacked for 44,000 ETH, or around 10 million dollars at the time. This was a devastating blow for the project. However, he immediately after joined a white hat hacker effort to protect about 500 other projects with the same vulnerability. They “stole” $208 million in an effort to secure the funds of these projects before the wrong party would get their hands on these funds. After that, his passion for security was ignited. In 2018, me, Xavier, and Edouard – the third co-founder – were talking a lot about the security subject, and at one point we asked ourselves a very simple question: which solution in the market would we truly trust with our first till our last bitcoin? We couldn’t find the answer. So we decided to build it ourselves.
Our first objective was to build a device that never compromises on security. For us, that meant private keys had to be generated offline and at no point in time could they ever be exposed to an online connection. This led us to the idea of ZERO, literally a solution with zero remote attack vectors. Unlike today’s incumbent hardware wallets, which still need a USB-, NFC-, or Bluetooth connection, ZERO was supposed to be offline at all times. To communicate to the outside world, we implemented unidirectional QR codes that never contain any information on the private keys. Building the most secure solution also meant we had to go for higher certifications: today, ZERO is the only EAL7 certified (= the highest security level in the world) solution in the entire digital asset space. We also built the device from the ground up, with world leading players in nanotechnology, cryptography, and hardware security, to truly have it function as a tamper proof security-purposed device.
4) Did you learn anything valuable in the first 60-90 days of running NGRAVE?
Definitely. There isn’t a single day that passes by without us learning something. A week in startup land is like several months in more mature companies, and that dynamism makes it incredibly exciting. For example, in those first 60-90 days, we had to figure out how we wanted to set up this huge endeavor, where we were supposed to build the most secure, user friendly, end-to-end crypto portfolio management solution in the world. We needed a strong vision and rationale to persuade early believers to join the project as strategic partners and/or funders. We needed to to think out an end-to-end product development approach, the positioning in the market we wanted to strive for, the type of brand we wanted to be, how we were gonna go about setting up a supply chain for worldwide delivery, and a continuous strategizing on how we would become the number one player in our industry. It is very much an understatement to say that we learned anything valuable in those first 90 days.
5) How do you deal with competition? What sets your company apart from other hardware wallets?
In our view, incumbent hardware wallets keep the security design and implementation too superficial. For one, none of them looks at security from an end-to-end perspective. They sell you a hardware wallet, but then they give you a piece of paper to back up your precious seed phrase or private key. A piece of paper is one of the least durable mediums to store something so valuable as your private key. That’s why we on the contrary continuously ask ourselves the simple yet incredibly powerful question “what-if?”. For example, our cold backup solution “GRAPHENE” came forth from asking the following questions. What if someone finds your backup? They should not be able to read off your backup key. So we made GRAPHENE encrypted. Next, what if you lose your backup? We made GRAPHENE the first recoverable backup in the industry. What if you were to pass away tomorrow? We made GRAPHENE recoverable posthumously and in all steps we removed the risk of any third party knowing your key.
We also went all out in vastly upgrading every step of your user journey, both from a security standpoint (a.o. 100% offline, EAL7 security certified, physically tamper proof), but also from a user experience perspective. In our view, security needs to be a hygiene factor, and user experience needs to be as seamless as possible. Hence, a touch screen experience that hides all cryptographic complexity, and where your coins are always “just one tap away”.
6) What do you look for when hiring people to your team at NGRAVE?
The most important traits for me definitely include integrity, honesty, proactivity, passion, eagerness to learn, hardworking, high quality deliverables, customer oriented, always aiming higher, and with the heart at the right place.
7) What is the one thing you wish your customers knew about Wallet security?
Everything starts and ends with how secure your private key / seed is. So you need to protect it as much as you can. Do not compromise. Crypto’s equivalent of opening the box of Pandora is establishing such a connection. Hackers can then try their full toolbox to compromise your security. So the lesson is simple: never go online! Never create your key online. Never expose your key online. This is exactly how NGRAVE’s solution works, but it remains imperative that users fully grasp this if they want to be safe at all times.
8) What is on the roadmap for NGRAVE in 2021?
In 2021, we will be focusing a lot on adding new coin support and on integrating with online platforms as their seamlessly accessible, ultra secure and offline counterpart. This includes integrations with (de)centralized exchanges, hot wallets, DeFi wallets, fiat on/off-ramps, and token swap platforms. We will also be focusing on further enhancing the security and user experience of our solutions, and on new innovations for the crypto space, which for now we’ll still keep as a surprise!
9) As you mentioned, everything starts and ends with the private key. How do you generate a strong private key?
That is a great and crucial question. And the fact of the matter is, I haven’t really seen a lot of solutions doing even this first step right. So what should be the outcome of your key generation process? You need to obtain a key that i) is created fully offline and out of sight, so that there is no one watching you as you make it, ii) is statistically unique and unbreakable, so no one can ever obtain the same key, let alone guess or brute force it, iii) is made in a way that any remaining risk of a third party potentially knowing the value of your key should be removed.
Therefore, NGRAVE’s key generation process takes place completely offline so you are the only one to see and backup your key. ZERO is also a cage of Faraday, so there is no radio frequency dissipation that could allow nearby hackers to literally “shazam” your private key. Moreover, our process relies both on the entropy generated by the internal chip (which has a built-in TRNG process) as well as on external factors such as your biometrics (fingerprint) and ambient light. As internal chips have been proven several times to have backdoors by a.o. intelligence agencies, we include these external factors to the key generation, to remove the impact of any such backdoors. Finally, we introduce a unique interaction between ZERO and the user, which resolves both backdoors as well as any potential preprogramming or other tampering of the device that might have happened before the user received it. NGRAVE has effectively built a gamified key generation process that is also radically more secure than any of the solutions in the market.