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The Helm. (Helm Photos)

A Seattle-area startup is aiming to take on giants such as Google and change the way we do email with a new physical personal email server.

Helm today unveiled its $499 device that lets consumers send and receive email from their own domain, in addition to saving contacts and calendar events. It’s a bold bet that aims to provide comfort at a time when privacy and security issues related to personal data hosted by big tech companies in the cloud are top of mind. The idea comes from Giri Sreenivas and Dirk Sigurdson, two entrepreneurs who already sold a security startup and raised a $4 million seed round from top venture capital firms last year.

The device is about the size of a router and looks like an upside-down book placed on a table. It connects to a home network and pairs with a mobile app that lets users create their own domain name, passwords, and recovery keys. Helm supports standard protocols and works with regular email clients such as Outlook or the Mail app, with encryption protecting connection between the device and the apps.

“Right now, nearly all of the data that comprises your online life is stored in a massive data center,” Sreenivas wrote in a blog post. “You don’t own it. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it — and you don’t know who can. That dream of a device that would make data ‘ownable’ to the individual — not a stranger — is what led to Helm.”

The device also comes with 120GB of solid state storage, with the option to add up to 5TB with an expansion slot. Emails, contacts, and calendar events are backed up with Helm’s encrypted service. It costs $499 and Helm charges a $99 annual subscription fee after the first year that helps the company provide software updates and new features.

The idea of a personal email server is not new — see: Hillary Clinton — but it is difficult for everyday consumers to configure and maintain. That’s where Helm wants to step in.

“With Helm, you can be safe, secure, and in control, knowing your data is right where it should be: with you, so you can live online on your own terms,” Sreenivas wrote. “It all starts with email, and over the coming months and years, our team will be working on a number of additional services, each bringing you one step closer to total autonomy online.”

Helm co-founders Giri Sreenivas and Dirk Sigurdson.

Sreenivas and Sigurdson previously co-founded Mobilisafe, a Seattle mobile device security startup that raised investment from Madrona Venture Group, Trilogy Equity Partners, and T-Mobile’s venture arm before it was acquired by Boston-based Rapid7 in 2012. They also worked together at T-Mobile as mobile software architects prior to launching Mobilsafe.

Sreenivas, a Stanford grad, also spent more than three years as a software engineer at Lockheed Martin. Sigurdson, a Harvard grad, worked at Wave Systems for nearly eight years before joining T-Mobile.

Investors in Helm, previously called Privacy Labs, include Instacart and Coinbase investor Initialized Capital; Lemnos Labs; Liquid 2 Ventures; CrunchFund; and Fuel Capital. Angel investors Steve Jang, Lee Linden, and Geoff Entress are also backers. The company employs 12 people.

In a blog post, Gerry Tan, managing partner at Initialized Capital (also run by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian), called Helm “one of my highest conviction investments” out of the firm’s third fund.

“Dirk and Giri are great security-first software engineers who have built something both secure and easy to use — this device wouldn’t work without both of those at the top of mind,” Tan wrote. “While we’ve funded a lot of startups, very few have required such high levels of excellence across so many disciplines: user experience design, software, security, hardware, manufacturing, finance, customer support, and operations.”

You can read more about Helm’s device at the FAQ page here.

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