Why the DC area has an ecosystem edge in cybersecurity
Cybersecurity talent fresh from the government is breathing life into startups around the Beltway
—There’s a revolution brewing in the nation’s capitol that has nothing to do with politics. The cybersecurity industry in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. is primed for excellent growth.
“Now is the best time to be starting a company in this region,” says Anup Ghosh, CEO of Invincea, a cybersecurity firm providing endpoint protection headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia.
With a plethora of strong academic institutions boasting top-tier research programs, government agencies developing the world’s best talent, and private industry applying both research and talent on a global scale, there’s nowhere else in the country that has the same critical mass of talent, training and opportunity.
At the base of the region’s boom are some of the world’s best cybersecurity professionals. They’ve got top-flight government training and expertise married with a commitment to serve the greater good, making them extremely valuable to new companies.
“There is more willingness in this population to be attracted to the mission,” as opposed to pure financial compensation, says Ed Hammersla, chief strategy officer at Forcepoint. “It’s a much more loyal workforce, and more seasoned. There’s a nice crossover in ages and diversity.”
As the number of cybersecurity start-ups in the region continues to expand, these workers are increasingly willing and able to move back and forth between government and industry with relative ease.
For many years, there wasn’t much of a revolving door between government and industry. But today, the experience of major technology companies like Tenable Network Security and Invincea coupled with wider trends in workforce mobility are helping give talented federal workers the inspiration and practical opportunity to make an impact in the private sector.
“You’re not going to see a lot of people like me in the future,” joked Teresa Shea, director of Cyber Reboot at the government venture capital group In-Q-Tel, referring to her 30-year tenure at National Security Agency (NSA).
As more tech companies make exits in this region, more professionals with unique technical experience will disseminate and create more companies or bring that expertise to the government. Newly-generated companies will attract recent graduates and talent from the government, who will hone their skills until they can make their own exits. And the cycle will repeat itself.
What does the region need to grow companies even faster?
What makes Silicon Valley great, says Ghosh, is more than developers and technical talent. It’s experienced business professionals that take great technology and connect it to government and commercial buyers.
“Where we have talent deficiencies from a business growth perspective is the go-to-market team: where are the CEOs, the product managers, the marketers?” asks Ghosh.
Second, because many companies in the region spin off from government-grown founders, there’s often a rush to chase large government contracts right off the bat, says Ghosh.
Instead, Ghosh and Hammersla agreed that going after smaller commercial successes would help not only in the short run by allowing companies to cut their teeth on smaller, more tractable problems, but in the long run as well, by opening access to a much bigger pool of dollars.
And some of the region’s lack of notoriety comes from old mores about how it markets itself, Ghosh points out.
“In Silicon Valley, you can talk about what you might do, and you’d get published,” he says. “Culturally, we’re trained not to talk about the amazing things we’ve done because we don’t want to mention customers. We need to get over this [reluctance to talk about customers], and really just talk about how amazing the innovation is.”
But with talented workers and new opportunities, the cybersecurity game in and around the nation’s capitol is set to take flight.
“It’s a great region to launch a tech company,” says Jack Huffard, the chief operating officer and co-founder of Maryland-based Tenable Network Security, which recently raised the largest round of venture capital funding for any cybersecurity company. “We can build some really fantastic companies in this area.”