VCAST - a secure way to vote

Changed on 12/04/2024
Set for launch in January 2024, VCAST, a startup developed within Inria Startup Studio by Stéphane Glondu and Michael Houalef, is aiming to make it easier to hold secure and transparent votes. Despite their divergent career paths, the two men behind the project are motivated by a common desire and draw on their complementary skill sets.
Online voting
Image pch.vector - Freepik


My name is an acronym which stands for the values I’m based on: Verifiability, Compliance, Assistance, Security and Transparency. All this in the context of online voting, from putting together lists of voters to sharing the results. Anyone taking part in a vote or any other form of public consultation expects reliability, confidentiality and transparency from the process, three fundamental principles which ensure that their choice is properly taken into account. While these are the foundations for my efficiency, I have also added ease of use, both for organisers and participants.

Making it easier to hold elections 

VCAST allows you to vote from anywhere using any device connected to the internet”, explains Stéphane Glondu, an Inria research engineer and one of my two creators. “As for the organisers, all they have to do is to connect to the platform, create an account and follow the steps for staging an election”. But behind this ease of use lies a security system that is far more complex, based on a program called Belenios which has proved its worth over the years.  “Not long after I joined Inria, Véronique Cortier, Pierrick Gaudry and I decided to launch Belenios, a project aimed at implementing the theoretical work that Véronique and Pierrick had done with the Pesto and Caramba project teams, joints undertaking between Inria and Loria. In 2015 we came up with a public platform which anyone could use to hold elections for free.”

A popular voting solution

One of the first users of Belenios was the CNRS, which was soon joined by a number of universities seeking to use it in order to hold elections for student and staff representatives. “Users in academia must have done a bit of advertising for us”, says Stéphane Glondu, “as sports clubs, trades unions and businesses all started using our system for group decision-making and staff elections.” This highlighted a need, but further development and maintenance would be required, particularly seeing as some organisers were looking for a more comprehensive service. That’s when Michael Houalefstepped in, a marketing and digital manager whose experience of management and business dovetailed nicely with Stéphane Glondu's technical expertise. “That's a year and a half that we’ve been working together on this project now”, says Michael Houalef, who uses a motoring metaphor to describe who does what: “Stéphane is responsible for tuning the engine, while I’m in charge of driving us to our shared goal.” 

From staff elections to homeowners’ associations  

Effectively, what I am is an online platform which can be used by anyone looking to hold any type of vote or election, with prices based on the number of voters and the services required, including vote configuration, legal advice and the sharing of results. Looking long-term, I will offer a subscription service to those organisations holding votes on a regular basis. One of our main targets is companies who need to hold staff elections”, explains Stéphane Glondu, before Michael Houalef adds, “It's a vast market. We're also exploring other options, including homeowners’ associations.” 

Proven performance and security

When it comes to attracting new customers, one of my main value propositions is my performance, as demonstrated by the success of Belenios, which held more than 5,000 online votes with a total of 500,000 voters. I also provide guarantees with regard to security and regulatory compliance thanks to a lawyer whose job it is to ensure that everything is above board, in addition to providing advice to any users who might need it.

Open-source security

“Any time you open a digital door, hacking is always a possibility”, says Michael Houalef. “But with VCAST the integrity of the ballot box is guaranteed.” As Stéphane Glondu adds: “The platform was evaluated from an organisational perspective based on recommendations from the CNIL (the French data protection authority) and from an organisational perspective by a laboratory assigned by the ANSSI (France’s national cybersecurity agency)”. As you can see, not only do I deliver on security, but I also deliver on transparency. To draw an analogy with traditional elections, I would say that I provide the materials - the voting booth and the polling station, only in digital form - but the people with the keys to the ballot box are the organisers, who have total control over how I am used. Not only that, but unlike my competitors, I operate using open-source software whose source code is available to consult and even analyse for free.

The benefits of a critical and constructive assessment

Now that I am operational, all that is left to do is to fine tune my commercial offering and take care of the legal side of things, something which Inria Startup Studio has been helping me with since January 2023. “Discussions with different ISS stakeholders have encouraged us to question ourselves”, explains Michael Houalef. “That’s the benefit of having a critical and constructive external perspective. We’ve also had access to training and events such as the Rendez-vous Carnot, where we had an opportunity to present our company.” Stéphane Glondu shares this enthusiasm: “We've had fascinating discussions on both technical and strategic matters, not just with support staff but also with other project leaders. The financial support has also been very useful. My salary is being paid for a year, and we have an operating budget that has allowed us to do things like visit trade fairs and install the server for the technical infrastructure.” 

While my creators might be focusing on my official launch, scheduled for late 2024, they are already thinking about future developments. This includes the possibility of recruiting a development engineer within the first year, or adapting my interface so that it can be used by people with visual disabilities. As you can see, there is no shortage of ideas or ambition. “We're hoping for there to be twelve of us within three years”, says Michael Houalef.

A partnership combining research and marketing 

De gauche à droite : Michaël Houalef et Stéphane Glondu
From left to right: Michaël Houalef and Stéphane Glondu

A graduate of the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan, Stéphane Glondu completed a PhD on formal methods in computer science at Paris Diderot University in 2012 before joining Inria where he was one of the main developers of Belenios alongside Véronique Cortier and Pierrick Gaudry.

After studying international business, Michael Houalef worked for some of the biggest names in retail (including Carrefour, Nespresso, Leroy Merlin, Leclerc and Lidl), where he was responsible for strategic and operational marketing, while pursuing an MSc in Digital Marketing followed by an Executive MBA. It was while studying for his MBA that he first encountered Stéphane Glondu.

The two of them hit it off immediately, and decided to pool their skill sets in order to launch the startup VCAST