While Washington area success story Invincea being sold for more than $100 million last week is newsworthy, founder Anup Ghosh’s journey is in some ways even more important. To provide some lessons learned in the trenches, I asked him to share highlights of his experience.
Ghosh described a product discovery process that began long before he even thought about starting a business. As a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Ghosh realized that when it came to cybersecurity “as good as we were on offense, we were equally vulnerable to attacks from our adversaries. In other words, we were throwing rocks from glass houses and we needed to re-think defense.”
Over the years, I have heard from many current and former program managers that DARPA is an atypical government entity. It is tasked with creating advanced technologies to avoid technological surprise from our international adversaries. It moves fast, and demands a high level of commitment and engagement. “Sprint” is the word I hear most frequently when DARPA employees describe their work pace.
Program managers like Ghosh are term-limited and given a short number of years to identify new approaches to solve big problems. Ghosh’s description of working at DARPA was very consistent with what I had heard from others. When he completed his term, Ghosh had accumulated expertise and insight into an area of technological importance. Unlike some who returned to research, he wanted to develop a commercial product.
Conventional wisdom states that entrepreneurs go to angel investors to get capital to create a product. While this approach works well in markets with ample risk capital, such as Silicon Valley, it isn’t usually successful in our region, where such capital is hard to find.
So instead, Ghosh got creative and used resources more readily available locally. He joined George Mason University as a research professor, and sought out federal research and development funding to advance his technology vision. In effect, a university community and the federal government became his angel investors!
The tactic worked. Ghosh created promising new cybersecurity technology without outside capital. He was able to show venture capitalists a completed product and get the first of a number of rounds of funding.
With the capital, Ghosh grew an impressive team including Steve Taylor, a Mason alumnus now Invincea’s longest-tenured employee, experienced cybersecurity entrepreneur Norm Laudermilch as chief operating officer and head of product, and Mike Daniels, Network Solutions founder as chairman of the board.
It was an uphill climb as he hand-picked people who could grow a software product company. Finding these workers, and having them collectively win, is to Ghosh the most important part of the Invincea story. And that success deepens the talent pool of experienced software product entrepreneurs in the greater Washington region, thereby creating a fertile environment for a new generation of successful cybersecurity product companies.
Invincea’s story arc is a reminder that by watching how a creative individual took advantage of the region’s distinct advantages, we learn about a model for a software product start-up path that is easily repeated and scaled.
For the benefit of our nation’s economic future, as well as for our region’s economy, it is a lesson worth learning.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.