Strategic Cyber Ventures, a D.C.-based investment firm backed by New York hedge fund Hudson Bay Capital, recently added a second local cybersecurity start-up to its portfolio. The $3.5 million investment announced Monday went to a four-person start-up called Polarity, which also received funding from Tenable Network Security founder Ron Gula.
Strategic Cyber Ventures and Gula’s fund Gula Tech Adventures are both part of new crop of cybersecurity investors that have popped in the D.C. area within the last 18 months, signaling what some see as a maturation in the local technology industry.
“Ron [Gula] and I were both tired of incredible talent leaving the NSA going to Silicon Valley to raise money,” said Strategic Cyber Ventures partner Tom Kellerman. “People who have spent 20 years protecting this country should be able to have an entrepreneurial experience in the region with people who understand their mission and their goals.”
The D.C. area’s technology scene has long been held back by a relative scarcity of venture capital. Some of the area’s most promising entrepreneurs have left for New York or California in search of investment dollars, where deals are larger, more plentiful and founders tend to get better investment terms.
But cybersecurity is the one area where that appears to be changing. Investment data maintained by the National Venture Capital Association shows that the number of local cybersecurity deals doubled between 2011 and 2015 even as investment in other industries saw little change.
These investors are hoping to commercialize the talent and intellectual property seeping out of the region’s military and intelligence agencies, applying government cybersecurity solutions to giant corporations that are devoting increasingly-large budgets to information security.
“I want that gangster, that hardcore technology person inside Langley or the NSA to say ‘. . .I don’t need to retire. . .someone will fund me here with out going out West,’ ” Kellerman said when asked why he set up shop in the District.
Kellerman’s investment firm itself draws heavily on the community of government cyber-professionals. Kellerman worked with Thomas as the chief security officer of Trend Micro, a Japan-based security company with revenues of more than $100 million a year. Chief operating officer Hank Thomas worked for government intelligence agencies for eight years before joining Booz Allen Hamilton to head the company’s threat intelligence team. And Strategic Cyber Ventures’ founding chief technology officer, who left the firm late last year, is Ann Barron-DiCamillo, the former the director of a cybersecurity readiness team at the Department of Homeland Security called US-CERT.
The investment firm started when Hudson Bay chief executive Sander Gerber, a long-time friend of Kellerman, persuaded him to leave his position and get into the investment game.
Monday’s investment announcement comes just a month after the fund invested $3 million in another D.C.-based company called ID DataWeb, and the firm has so far deployed four out of at least eight planned investments. It has mostly made small bets so far, but Kellerman says the firm “has access to far more than $100 million” by virtue of its partnership with Hudson Bay, giving it more than enough financial weight to join larger investment rounds as its portfolio companies mature.
The plan is to pull together a complementary suite of services designed to disrupt hackers once they are already inside a company’s network, an approach that tracks along with where many investors see the cybersecurity industry going.
The frequency of high-profile hacks in recent years — and the speed with which cyber-criminals figure out how to crack through the prevailing fixes — has led to a certain acceptance that no company’s perimeter can ever be perfectly secure.
“We’re not investing in walls and motes. We’re investing in a supermax prison; the rotweilers, the guard towers, the motion sensors that sit inside the perimeter,” Kellerman said.
Polarity, the firm’s latest investment, currently employs just four people in the D.C. area, though the young company want to hire at least 10 more with this new infusion of capital. The four-person company already has three large banks paying to use its “memory augmentation technology,” which is designed to match bits of information like IP addresses with data the company has encountered in the past, helping corporate cybersecurity professionals figure out exactly who is banging at the gates.
Gula, who co-invested in Polarity, says he even sees applications outside of cybersecurity, such as business intelligence and customer support. But the broader point of the companies that Strategic Cyber Ventures is knitting together, Gula says, is to provide second and third lines of defense for vulnerable companies.
“They’re trying to dramatically increase the cost of offensive cyber operations against private entities,” Gula said.