In the ranks of technology incubator programs, there is AngelPad here in San Francisco and Y Combinator about 40 miles south in Mountain View. And then there is the Pentagon.
In the last year, former Department of Defense and intelligence agency operatives have headed to Silicon Valley to create technology start-ups specializing in tools aimed at thwarting online threats. Frequent reports of cyberattacks have expanded the demand for security tools, in both the public and private sectors, and venture capital money has followed. In 2012, more than $1 billion in venture financing poured into security start-ups, more than double the amount in 2010, according to the National Venture Capital Association.
For years, the Pentagon has knocked on Silicon Valley’s door in search of programmers to work on its spying technologies. But these days, it’s the Pentagon that is being scouted for expertise. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are finding it valuable to have an insider’s perspective on the national security apparatus when trying to find or prevent computer vulnerabilities or mine large troves of data.
“They have unique insights because they’ve been on the front line,” said Matthew Howard, a former intelligence analyst in the Navy and now a managing partner at Norwest Venture Partners, referring to former military and intelligence operatives who have hatched start-ups. He has invested in several such companies. “Now they’ve got commercial desires. The lines are blurring.”
One of the start-ups is Synack, which promises to vet an army of hackers to hunt for security vulnerabilities in the computer systems of government agencies and private companies. The company’s co-founders, Jay Kaplan and Mark Kuhr, met in Fort Meade, Md., in the counterterrorism division of the National Security Agency. They left the agency in February after four years there, and later decamped to Silicon Valley. Within weeks, they had raised $1.5 million in seed money; they are now working with their first customers and pitching their experience in the spy agency.
“Doing things on a classified level really opens your eyes,” Mr. Kaplan said. “The government is doing a lot of interesting things they don’t disclose. You have a unique perspective on what the adversary is doing and the state of computer security at a whole other level.”
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