Business Management

Why Scotland will remain this security startup's home

There’s no doubt London grabs most of the tech headlines. But there’s plenty of technology innovation and activity going on outside of the M25.

Cambridge is a hotbed for some of the cutting edge tech, Belfast is transforming itself into a technology hub, and Scotland is breeding startups at a rapid pace.

In recent years, a growing number of companies have started sprouting up in the likes of Edinburgh and Glasgow; from fantasy sports site Fanduel and light-powered Wi-Fi PureLifi to training startup Administrate, Cloudgine, and Machines with Vision. The $1.7 billion acquisition of local hero SkyScanner by China’s Ctrip was proof that you can build billion-dollar startups north of the border.

“We’ve got a pretty good startup scene up there, some nice companies - SkyScanner for example - feeding back into the local community and fostering other companies like us,” says Dr. Jamie Graves, CEO of security startup ZoneFox.

“And one thing we need to do a lot more of is promote ourselves. We're really crap at marketing Scotland and the skills we have.”

Scottish revival

Graves spun ZoneFox out of Edinburgh Napier University as a result of the work he did during his PhD on digital forensics. Today the company is based at CodeBase, the UK’s largest incubator and housed in the heart of Edinburgh, alongside over 60 local startups.

“It's a very multicultural, mixed place to live and work. Most of my friends are not from the UK… are transient through and decided to stay because it's a pretty neat place to work.”

“We've got great quality universities, it's a smallish place to get around so Edinburgh to Glasgow is only 45 minutes apart, so that's a trip across London, so effectively we've got our hub there. We've got influences of places like Edinburgh University, where you've got a fantastic computer science department.

“And we've got people who come to study in Scotland and go, 'Actually it's alright; weather's a bit crap, but it's alright,' and stayed there after their degrees and joined tiny wee startups. We're seeing more and more people stay, more and more people start up companies that solve problems.”

He likens Scotland’s transition to Belfast’s; two cities with a history of heavy industry, slow decline as the world changed, and a recent revival centred around technology.

“It's great to see parts of the world that had heavy manufacturing and were known for engineering are now doing another form of engineering. It's almost as if it's in the DNA of the place.”

More than a few companies have relocated to be closer to where all the technology hype is, and even massive companies like Baidu and WalMart are growing their presence in Silicon Valley. ZoneFox has plans to open a satellite office in London, and if there’s ever a California office, Graves says it will be for marketing and sales purposes. But there’s no plans to ever leave home.

“Scotland’s our home, it's a fantastic place to grow a company. We've got some amazing guys who work up there, they love working there. SkyScanner has shown that you can do that; you can be worth a billion dollars and be raised in Edinburgh.”

Given that the majority of Scotland voted to remain in last year’s Brexit referendum, it would be remiss not to bring it up. Graves, however, feels more personally hurt than concerned about the business outcomes.

“It's heart-breaking man, it's terrible. I get why they're doing it, because of public perception and opinion and that kind of stuff, but really the individuals that we hire and we work with are incredibly talented and are a net gain to the country.

“Edinburgh’s a very multicultural, mixed place to live and work. There's something really magical about innovation and opportunity that happens when you just bump into random people who decided to move somewhere. That's the kind of thing that you can't engineer, it's just got to be a thing that happens. And that's why I'm feeling a bit heartbroken about the whole thing. It's just, it blows.”

AI snake oil and hype cycles

In March, ZoneFox closed a £3.6 million [$4.6 million] Series A funding round to help it combat Insider Threats. Like its competitor DarkTrace, ZoneFox’s technology builds a profile of normal activities and behaviour and flags up anything it believes to be suspicious in real time. Whether it’s a certain employee trying to access a part of the business they shouldn’t be, up to a compromised SysAdmin account deviating from previous behaviours and potentially stealing the keys to the kingdom.

“We've got a nice forensics solution so you can type Bob's name in and see what Bob's been up to. You can then correlate Bob's activities with his policies, and then the icing on the cake is the machine learning component we have to understand what Bob gets up to and also what Bob's peers get up to, so you can correlate and understand what a group of people should act and look like within your organisation.”

Eventually, Graves wants to start digging into meta patterns or behaviours – a salesperson typically does and doesn’t access or use certain tools or systems in predictable ways – and have that as a pre-built model. Currently though each system learns directly on site from historical and current behaviour. The company claims it can start detecting unusual activity in just a few hours.

Considering ZoneFox is a company highlighting its credentials in the machine learning space, it’s surprising how quick Graves is to agree the whole AI/ML industry is being over-egged.

“It's all bullshit. Because everyone uses machine learning and that's a subset of AI, so it's not proper AI. That's my line in the sand, for a start.”

Graves says his company uses the term augmented intelligence to differentiate, he’s honest in that behind the scenes the company is ‘just’ using machine learning techniques.

 “I've yet to see anything like deep learning or anything like that applied in the security space or even things like predictive or prescriptive analytics which will show you what to do next in terms of next best action. That's where we'd like to go as an organisation, and embed some proper AI within the product, but we're not there yet.”

“It's a problem we have as an industry; snake oil and a lot of bullshit around it. And we're going through that Gartner Hype Cycle right now with regards to the hype; we're at the peak there and what I'd like to do is get from the peak to the plateau of productivity without the trough of disillusionment which we're headed towards very quickly right now.”

Also read:
New datacentre will be Scotland’s digital hub
Q&A Interview: IT Skills in Scotland
Swarmly Vs Foursquare, Dragon’s Den and Privacy
Immersive VR: When will audio catch up?
The future of machine learning in cybersecurity: What can CISOs expect?
Can ‘good’ machine learning take on global cybercrime?
Fast-moving Darktrace nets $18m and says profits not far off


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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