The mastermind behind Salzburg’s route to the smart Silicon Valley

What not everyone knows: Salzburg is one of the world’s pioneer centers for smart energy solutions and IT security. The brain behind the “smart Silicon Valley” is Dominik Engel.

What not everyone knows: Salzburg is one of the world’s pioneer centers for smart energy solutions and IT security. The brain behind the “smart Silicon Valley” is Dominik Engel. His expertise against IT hackers and for the future of the energy industry inspires experts and young students equally. The global corporations Siemens and Bosch procure the know-how of his research group.

Dominik Engel’s professor’s room on the fourth floor of the University of Applied Sciences (FH) in Salzburg-Urstein is considered one of the most beautiful in the building. The panoramic view of the FH campus, the mountains, and the city of Salzburg in the north are breathtaking. The fact that Engel has been given this place of work, which would also be suitable as a president’s room, is probably no coincidence at FH Salzburg. Without being a president, he is one of the university’s figureheads. Together with his team, he does international pioneering work and is acknowledged as the responsible person of private education and research.


IT security as a vital theme

Dominik Engel, born in 1978, enjoys an international reputation, above all as a specialist in digital security. Half a dozen other companies, including Siemens and Bosch, co finance his R&D work to safeguard personal data against misuse, particularly by hackers. Cornell University in the US, which has such a department, is constantly interacting with him and his coworkers. He publishes articles for the scientific journal “Nature Energy”. Even since his time as a student in the 90s, Engel has been working intensively on IT security, when the problem was still largely underestimated. He completed his thesis in Applied Informatics at the University of Salzburg in 2002, his dissertation in 2008, and his post-doctoral dissertation last year.

At the beginning, it was about problem awareness. Today, Engel provides solutions. He took on IT questions before others did. He was able to convey this competence advantage to the regional energy provider Salzburg AG, the non profit cooperative Salzburg Wohnbau, Siemens, and the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Vienna. They became Engel’s partner from the start, and he became the right man in the right place. The fact that Salzburg was chosen as the Austrian model region for digital energy systems, such as smart grids, and that Siemens is talking about the “smart Silicon Valley” is thanks to him and his research group. “Digitization brings many advantages, but it also has the disadvantage of being vulnerable. Hackers are flying in smart grids to invade privacy. With our research to strengthen privacy, we have greatly increased the security and thus the customer acceptance of smart meters,” explains the Salzburg FH professor and head of the Center for Safe Energy Informatics (ZSE).



E-voting principle

For the digital control of solar and wind energy in the overall network system, smart meters are a prerequisite. Also to set off end users. The whole energy revolution was threatened to fail due to the multiple fears of total surveillance of its environment and the fear of data hacking.

Indeed, anyone leaves traces in the data network as soon as they turn on an electronic device - from the kitchen stove to the computer. With smart meters, it is easy for energy suppliers and even for hackers to find out the most private things such as consumer habits or a religious confession. “If you have peaks of consumption at Christmas and Easter, that points to Christians. Similarly, it is noticeable if no food is prepared during the day during Ramadan,” Dominik Engel provides an example. In a German laboratory experiment, even the TV consumption of a household could be accurately identified via the network. In order to guarantee the legitimate protection of privacy, the ZSE team used electronic voting or e-voting: Although the power consumption is determined individually for billing, it is stored in an encrypted way through clusters such as a settlement. Third parties do not see the individual consumption. “Just like with a house, we have sealed windows and doors against unwanted intruders,” explains Dominik Engel.

The regional energy provider Salzburg AG already implements the encryption technology developed at ZSE, along with other network operators, even as far as to Canada. “This pioneering work has made our small FH and our mini team widely visible and called upon corporations as financiers,” says Dominik Engel. The EU has called him to the “Task Force for Smart Grid Privacy” in Brussels.


New tariff fairness

Together with the Energy Institute at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Engel’s group has recently dealt with the intelligent differentiation of network tariffs. In an innovative, fair model, a single parent with a tight budget should be tariffed differently than the well-paid tax advisor. “Individualized communication is also a secret of Google and Facebook. In order to have the feeling that one is getting personal benefits, the users are easily ready to disclose private data,” says Engel. He does not patent the ideas. He does not want to use the findings for himself but says that he rather wants to make them easily accessible.

Taking the achieved results as a basis, ZSE also wants to research electro mobility, smart home / internet of things, and blockchain technologies. Thereby, addressing further industrial partners.


A smart fellow

Smart is also the keyword if you want to summarize Dominik Engel’s personality and career. The son of an English professor and a Slavist, coming from an area close to Innsbruck, he appears like a male model from a clothing catalog with his 1.89 meter guard-like figure. At 18, he studied Computer Science in Salzburg. The institute was only beginning to be established back then. As a second subject, he chose Tyrolean English and American Studies. His study abroad year in England helped him with his academic career from day one. Especially in his field, everything is in English.

Sony became attentive to the university graduate. Dominik Engel became the global project manager for copy protection on DVDs. He co-developed a patent covering this field. Another highlight and a test in the Sony era was a stay in Hollywood, where he consulted studios like Warner Bros. “That was tough. If lectures are not technically error-free, they interrupt you and throw you out in the middle of it,” Engel remembers. He passed the test.

His smart rhetoric paired with IT expertise finally brought him into contact with FH Salzburg. Engel was hired in 2006 as a lecturer for secrecy on the Internet. The cryptology lectures were immediately a hit among students. An unusual, large number of theses were written about it. One graduate has landed a job in the Austrian Federal Criminal Police Office BKA. Consequently, in 2010, he was offered the vacant professorship for Network Technology and Security. “That was perfect for me.” Engel switched from private business to academia.


“IT love”

Engel is married in Salzburg and is the father of two children. His wife leads e-commerce projects at a trading company. “It was IT love,” Dominik Engel smiles. In his free time, he is with his family or doing sports. As a Tyrolean, he goes skiing and likes to climb. Running keeps him fit.

Salzburg, with its mixture of beautiful restaurants, nature, and festivals, has long since become his new home. The fact that the largest energy informatics conference for the German-speaking countries takes place in the fall of 2019 at “his” FH Salzburg already makes him proud.

Zur Seite