Feature: The kids are right

The capital’s new cybersecurity society has ramped up plans to turn Canada into a “global leader” in the sector not even two years after the initial idea was hatched.

Carleton University professor and business guru Tony Bailetti came up with the idea for a holistic cybersecurity ecosystem that would in part “beef up the cybersecurity startup in Canada” in an academic paper he published in the summer of 2013, a year after an auditor’s report noted the federal government’s “limited progress” in addressing cyber threats over the last decade.

Within only a few months, Bailetti’s vision took shape with the VENUS Cybersecurity Corporation. Over the last year, the non-profit business centre has been quickly establishing a presence with the addition of six initial startups, master’s level courses in cybersecurity, a brand new accelerator program, and initiatives to solidify Canada’s cybersecurity sector and turn it into an international hub for future growth.

“Right now we (Canada) have been pretty passive players. We just take whatever we get and that’s it. And I’d like to change that,” says Bailetti. “The idea was that we would do something that no organization on its own, whether government or industry, could do on their own.”

Backed by a number of major public- and private-sector sponsors, VENUS has “lofty” goals to build Canada’s intellectual and industrial capacity to become leaders in cybersecurity.

One of the organization’s lead projects involves a partnership with Telus that will assess the cybersecurity needs of Canada’s roughly 3,800 municipal governments and lobby for provincial legislation that would enforce standardized levels of security that each municipality would have to meet based on its needs.

“That’ll help drive growth,” says Jeffrey Tracey, VENUS’s director of business development. “These ventures, the companies we’re trying to develop … we want them to be able to sell their technologies into these organizations.”

The Lead to Win Cyber accelerator is the most recent addition to the ecosystem that will bring in a new pool of security solutions.

Launched this March, the program will grant mentorship and seed funding to startups deemed capable of growing to $1 million in revenues in three years, just like Bailetti’s original Lead to Win program. Mr. Tracey says they expect to take on up to a dozen new companies per year and to eventually expand to seven accelerators across Canada.

VENUS has also been developing relationships with other cybersecurity accelerators around the world in order to form a global network. Tracey says it could offer a soft landing for outside companies to expand into Canada, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, the six inaugural VENUS startups have been developing their technology at the organization’s Orleans facility for months. Managers of those startups say VENUS has helped them grow their business from within a central hub of resources and connections.

Sem Ponnambalam, chief operating officer of Xahive, says her company has been expanding its scope at a rate that wouldn’t have been possible without it. The nine-person startup, incorporated in October 2013, develops a secure communication platform for sensitive data that namely targets clients such as health networks and legal offices.

“I think it would take us a lot longer (to grow), for sure, and in terms of going global, I don’t think that would be happening anytime soon,” says Ponnambalam.

“Definitely being in the centre of an accelerator that’s focused on security gave us a lot of exposure,” says Sherif Koussa, CEO of Securify Labs, a year-old, three-person startup that develops security for open-source software.

Bailetti says the idea is to have a “cluster of technology ventures” that work together and complement each other. Securify Labs, for example, has partnered with another startup called TwoDucks Inc. to co-develop a new software security solution.

Over at Carleton, a theoretical and educational component underscores VENUS’s business development efforts. There’s the VENUS Institute, a think-tank that looks to refine the definition of cybersecurity and Canada’s role in the sector, and several master’s level cybersecurity courses, two now in session and four more to come.

VENUS will also be part of the Bayview Yards facility due to open by mid-2016, says Mr. Tracey. There, the organization plans to work with Communications Security Establishment Canada to establish a global resource centre that will lead a coalition of about 35 countries in cybersecurity monitoring efforts.

“This is a global problem,” says Tracey. “It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Canada or Timbuktu. So we’re suddenly finding that we’re reaching out globally faster than expected.”

When it comes to fixing that problem, there’s a “major disconnect between the old talent and the new talent,” Bailetti says. The young businesspeople he teaches and mentors don’t like the scare tactics of the traditional cybersecurity approach, he says. Instead, they seek to make the Internet more productive and creative, and to do so without having to trade in privacy to get security.

“And you know what?” he says. “The kids are right.”