Virtru will compete in next week’s SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

John Ackerly has his pitch down pat.

Days before he and his brother head down to the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas — where their start-up company has been selected to compete for the event’s inaugural privacy and security innovation award — Ackerly runs through the spiel. He barely pauses as he flows from investment opportunities to cost-benefit analyses to unique perks that set what he’s touting apart from the competition.

Only this pitch isn’t for his company. It’s for Washington.

“It’s an incredible place to launch a company like ours” Ackerly says of the nation’s capital, where he and his brother, Will, have over the past two years built an e-mail security company, Virtru, from the ground up in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Virtru allows users to easily encrypt messages they send through Web platforms such as Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo Mail, helping keep the Internet’s prying eyes off their e-mails and attachments.

As D.C.’s lone representatives in this year’s South by Southwest Interactive Innovation Awards — among the most closely watched competitions at one of the premier showcases for tech start-ups — winning wouldn’t just mean recognition for their company, but also for their city.

“We’re D.C. evangelists,” John Ackerly said. “We really want to spread the word while we’re down there and help people recognize that this is a booming city for innovators and entrepreneurs.”


The Ackerlys will be among hundreds of representatives from D.C. at this year’s SXSW (EPA/LARRY W. SMITH)

They won’t be alone.

Dozens of local government officials and business leaders from the District flocked to Austin this weekend to spread the news: that entrepreneurs who would normally gravitate to Silicon Valley or New York shouldn’t overlook the start-up economy sprouting in Uncle Sam’s back yard. City officials have forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert a restaurant across the street from the Austin Convention Center into a central “We DC” hub for all things Washington. There, they will hold events touting the city’s emergence as a leader in, among other areas, technology and innovation.

Of course, whether entrepreneurs from around the country leave Texas with an new, innovation-friendly perception of the nation’s capital will likely depend less on speeches and marketing materials prepared by elected officials and more on the so-called evangelism from their peers in D.C. — like the Ackerlys.

So what are their selling points for Washington?

“It’s a combination of things,” Ackerly said. “First of all, from a talent perspective, there is not a more rich pool of talent than the one in the Washington area.”

The Ackerly brothers both worked for the government before starting Virtru — John as director of the policy and strategic planning at the Commerce Department and Will as an Internet security architect at the National Security Agency — and many of their employees (18 of 21 of whom are in the District) came from the public sector. There, John said, they “became accustomed to a mission-driven culture and trying to improve the world.”

Often, when they are ready to make the transition to the private sector, many of those folks find that the best fit is with an ambitious young company; making D.C. not only ripe with talent, but also ripe with people who tend to gravitate toward start-ups.


Will (L) and John Ackerly both spent time in the public sector, as did many of their employees at Virtru. (Jeffrey MacMllan)

At the same time, the city “has become a really cool place to work,” he said, noting that his employees “can walk four blocks and be on U Street, which is now a hopping area that five years ago was more of a no-go zone.”

One of the remaining knocks on starting a technology company in Washington is that investors are much more interested in companies based in hubs such as Boston, New York and San Francisco. While that’s still the mode of operation for some venture capital groups, Ackerly said, there are plenty of investors interested in D.C. upstarts.

“During the fundraising process, we heard a few people out in Silicon Valley say, ‘Hey you should move out here.’” he said. “But that’s changing, and we were able to find investors who really understand the Washington ecosystem and what’s possible here.” Last summer, Virtru raised $10 million from several big-name investors, including $6 million from Bessemer Venture Partners, known for taking early stakes in LinkedIn and Skype.

On Tuesday, the Ackerlys will try to win over another group of investors (doubling, in this case, as judges) during the finals of the Interactive Innovation competition. During that pitch (which has been just as finely tuned), they will demonstrate how their new Internet browser plugin allows you to better control who reads your e-mails and attachments, determine who those messages can be forwarded to, and even pull back an e-mail after you hit send.

The tools, which the company rolled out in January, include both a free and premium version. They are meant for an array of customers, ranging from individuals to small businesses to — where Virtru is bringing in most of its revenue to date — large institutions with sensitive data, such as hospitals and financial companies.

Outside of the event, the brothers plan to spend most of their days in Austin touting their software, meeting with customers, and “spending time in the D.C. pavilion, spreading the word about Washington,” Ackerly said.

And their evenings?

“Most of those will be spent back in my hotel room on the computer,” Ackerly said. “We still have a business to run.”

Stay tuned next week for more of our coverage of SXSW live from Austin.

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