GCHQ looks to foster security innovation through startup accelerators

GCHQ looks to foster security innovation through startup accelerators

With the exception of certain bodies such as NASA and DARPA, government organizations aren’t known for fostering innovation. Likewise, government intelligence agencies aren’t known for being particularly open to sharing ideas or expertise.

But that is starting to change. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, founded in 2016, is designed to help the public and private sector better protect themselves from computer security threats by better sharing information and providing guidance. As well as sharing information, intelligence agencies are starting to share code. Between them, the NSA, GCHQ, and even Canada’s CSE have shared dozens of tools with the IT community as Open Source projects.

And now they are even looking to offer startups guidance to foster innovation in the name of helping organizations be more digitally secure.


GCHQ’s Startup Accelerator

In 2016, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) announced it was launching its first ever startup accelerator. It was founded with the goal of ‘supporting the growth and development of the next generation of cyber security companies, growing capacity and capability nationally.’

The original three-month programme - funded through the National Cyber Security Program - offered a £5,000 grant [$7,000, with GCHQ taking no equity or IP rights], ran from January 2017 and gave startups ‘access to GCHQ’s world-class personnel and technological expertise to allow them to expand capability, improve ideas and devise cutting-edge products to outpace current and emerging threats.’

In the US the CIA has its In-Q-Tel VC firm, and companies such as DataTribe try to leverage contacts within the intelligence community, but GCHQ’s accelerator was one of the few – if not only – example of such a programme giving such direct access to the normally secretive agencies.

“What we want to do is combine our understanding of the problem space, the challenges organizations face in securing themselves, with those innovative ideas and with our experts,” the NCSC’s Deputy Director for Cyber Skills and Growth Chris Ensor told TechWorld last year. “So that's what we're trying to do; work beyond the razor wire of GCHQ in a much more agile and sometimes interesting environment, with a lot of new ideas and new people.”


Targeting cyber-security startups in the UK, the accelerator was organized by Telefonica's startup programme, Wayra. Over 70 startups applied for the inaugural iteration of the accelerator, and seven eventually entered the programme: CounterCraft, CyberOwl, CyberSmart, Spherical Defence, StatusToday, Elemendar, and Verimuchme. The original intake covered everything from monitoring and compliance to personal finance and AI-powered firewalls. Of that year’s class, Countercraft - which offers automated deception tools - is the most well-funded having raised €2.1 million [$2.6 million] since its founding in 2015.

“This has been a textbook exercise in how to accelerate companies extremely quickly,” said Wayra UK Director Gary Stewart at the end of the first programme. “We’ve been able to take our strengths and marry them to GCHQ’s world-leading cyber expertise, creating a perfect petri dish for these start-ups to scale. I’m immensely proud that we’ve been able to realize the promise of this collaboration, and enthused about moving the partnership forward in an even bigger and better way through a new call for cyber start-ups to join the programme.”


2018: Round 2

The inaugural accelerator proved successful, and another round was quickly announced. Over 100 startups applied to be part of the second batch, and nine made it through: Cybershield, Secure Code Warrior, RazorSecure, Elliptic, Intruder, Trust Elevate, Warden, Ioetec, and ExactTrak. As in the first class, the areas covered range from phishing and cryptocurrency fraud to IoT authentication and secure coding.

“The GCHQ Cyber Accelerator programme is a great example of government, industry and tech startups coming together to benefit from the advice of world class experts and tackle cyber-crime,” UK Minister for Digital Matt Hancock said at the welcoming of the second cohort.

The programme, which started in January, will now last nine months and sees the grant size increased to £25,000 [$25,000], as well as offering office space and mentoring.

“The GCHQ accelerator provides the unique opportunity to engage with and discuss technology with some of the best brains in the world,” says ExactTrak CEO Norman Shaw.

Founded in 2008, ExtractTrak provides endpoint security solutions; its Security Guardian offering gives IT control of where and how mobile data is used and can be accessed, monitored, and deleted remotely. The company sells its offering via a subscription basis, and globally managed via a cloud-based or on-premise dashboard with data centers in the UK and USA. The company has so far raised a little under $2 million in funding, and already has ties to Gemalto, AMD, and others. Shaw is positive about the accelerator experience so far.

“After 4 months we have already met many people both from industry and GCHQ that have made valuable suggestions and contributions. The social media and events that have been organized have significantly raised our profile.”

“As a member of the cohort, ExactTrak is entitled to use the GCHQ name and logo as part of our communication and promotion. This adds great credibility.”

There is no shortage of startup accelerators out there, and many that involve some of the biggest technology companies in the world, so what made GCHQ’s so appealing?

“There is very little expertise available in the normal business community at the forefront of technology. Engaging with GCHQ allows us to share ideas and discuss detailed security implementation with people who deal with data and device security at the highest level.”

“The GCHQ accelerator provides the unique opportunity to engage with and discuss technology with some of the best brains in the world. In addition to the technical aspects, the accelerator is managed by Wayra, part of Telefonica. They are providing mentoring as well as access and introductions to funders, potential customers and government contacts.”

Given the often secretive and dubious nature of the work intelligence agencies take part in, it would be understandable to have misgivings about such a partnership. Even if the accelerator was clear that its entrees would not be developing internal spy tools for the agency. But Shaw has no such worries.

“There have not been any negative comments about GCHQ and the various media coverage from any of the cohort or the many companies that we meet. The involvement of GCHQ and Telefonica allows each member to punch way above their weight.”

“For instance, ExactTrak has been invited to present its technology at Pitch@Palace. This is a very prestigious event organized as part of the promotion of UK entrepreneurs by Price Andrew, The Duke of York. Our increased profile will provide the company with the ability to interface and sell to companies that would otherwise be very difficult to contact.”


Also read:
Enterprise GitHub projects of the week: Intelligence agency special
Better communication & collaboration key to beating online criminals and terrorists
Bletchley Park: From Code-Breaking to Kids Coding


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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