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iCyberCenter to help startups get a foothold in Maryland

For Canadian software developer Plurilock, a new international cybersecurity center gearing up at the bwtech@UMBC technology park could be the gateway it needs to expand in the U.S.

Plurilock CEO Ian Paterson said the company has been selling intrusion-detection software to companies and government agencies in the Baltimore-Washington market since January.

But it is the new center that will help Plurilock, which has opened an outpost in the technology park, “get plugged into the region,” Paterson said.

The center, announced in June, builds on an existing business incubator program for U.S. companies, and is expected to make the technology park at UMBC a larger player in cybersecurity, according to state officials.

Recent headline-grabbing events, including Russian hacking of U.S. presidential campaign information and a data breach at credit monitor Equifax, have shined a brighter light on the need for fortified computer defense systems. The cybersecurity industry is projected to grow by 38 percent, to $101.6 billion, by 2020, according to market research firm International Data Corp.

Plurilock, which develops proprietary software to analyze computer users’ behavior to identify intruders, sells to business and government clients, including the Department of Defense.

Leaders of the iCyberCenter, as it is being branded, are hoping to draw to more companies like it to southwest Baltimore County, which in turn could boost the area economy.

“Any time you enlarge your customer base, that’s a good thing,” said Bettina Tebo, president of the Greater Arbutus Business Association. Expanding bwtech@UMBC, she said, “brings more people into the Arbutus area, and that’s always a winner.”

To further bolster international outreach, Maryland announced last week it is opening a trade office in London to help attract investments from cybersecurity companies.

“More and more we were being approached by international economic development organizations, embassies, even companies themselves, letting us know: ‘We need to get into the U.S. market, but we’re not sure how to go about it,’” said Ellen Hemmerly, director of the tech center.

A report by Sage Policy Group, a consulting firm, found that between 2006 and 2014, employment at bwtech@UMBC grew from 841 to 1,198 jobs.

The iCyberCenter program at the technology park is expected to draw 10 to 15 companies per year, which will rent office space and create at least 100 jobs, according a June announcement from the governor’s office issued during a state economic development and trade mission to Europe.

The number of jobs created will depend on how successful the companies are — something experts say is hard to predict.

“The thing about incubators is that you just don’t know,” said Michael O’Leary, chairman of Towson University’s mathematics department and an expert in cybersecurity. “You may have a great incubator, but none of the companies turn out to become a great hit. On the other hand, you may have a bad incubator, but if you have the next Facebook in it, you look like a genius.”

Although there are no guarantees, O’Leary said the iCyberCenter is in the right location to succeed because of the many major cybersecurity players based near Washington.

The program, created in partnership with the Maryland Department of Commerce, includes an executive training session expected to launch next spring, and will provide other support to companies from U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“Part of what we’re doing is selling the region,” said Jennifer Reynolds, who will run iCyberCenter programs. She pointed to the proximity of the technology park to Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency, and universities with cybersecurity training programs.

“We collectively have to really work at helping these international companies understand the competitive advantages of doing business in Maryland,” Hemmerly said.

A range of services

The iCyberCenter is offering “entrepreneurs-in-residence,” people who have started multiple businesses and can offer mentorship to new entrepreneurs, said Nick Zajciw, manager of the tech park’s business incubator, which provides space and mentors to emerging businesses.

It also offers training and access to resources at UMBC, from student talent, to faculty expertise, to high-tech research facilities.

Ken McCreedy, who leads the cyber team at the Maryland Department of Commerce, said that to his knowledge, the “landing spot for international companies” is the first of its kind and will connect the region to an increasingly globalized economy.

“The more we’re connected to international markets, the more opportunities we have to grow economically,” McCreedy said. “But also to create experiences for our workforce and for our population to more fully participate in the international economy.”

A major challenge for Plurilock in Maryland is “understanding the relationships and the unofficial structures that exist within the broader community,” Paterson, the CEO, said. “It’s difficult to navigate those without a physical presence and experienced individuals.”

Paterson said his company expects the iCyberCenter to be a “stepping stone” to a more permanent base in the region, adding: “Our experience so far has been good, it would make sense to stay in the same neighborhood.”

A spokeswoman for Plurilock declined to disclose the company’s annual revenues.

A company involved in the program, Hemmerly said, may start out taking the executive training course, expected to cost between $5,000 and $8,000. The course will cover the logistics of selling cyber services in the U.S., with subjects such as legal tasks, human resources rules and how to bid on contracts with the federal government. The training will involve coming up with an action plan for entering the U.S. market, Hemmerly said.

After or instead of the training course, Hemmerly said, companies can participate in the 12-month Cyber Incubator program, which offers work space, training and mentorship.

The program’s start-up costs will be provided by UMBC, the Maryland Department of Commerce and bwtech@UMBC, Hemmerly said. Within two years organizers expect it to be self-sufficient, run on fees companies will pay to participate. Hemmerly declined to provide an initial budget for the program.

Start-ups can rent dedicated office space in the technology park; or, for a lower fee, they can access shared work spaces like the Cyber Hive, a sprawling room lined with industrial pipes and carpeted in reds and grays, surrounded by frosted glass offices filled with art prints and a black bean bag chair.

The center chose to focus initially on close allies that the U.S. shares intelligence with, as many cybersecurity companies sell services to government agencies, Hemmerly said, adding that companies from other U.S. allies will eventually be under consideration.

Building on incubator’s success

The international program is built on an existing incubator program, which has 46 companies as members.

Will Anderson, head of Baltimore County’s Department of Economic and Workforce Development, said the iCyberCenter will only add to the impact of bwtech@UMBC, which he said pumps $500 million a year into the local economy.

The technology center’s tenants spent $168 million in Baltimore County in 2014 and created more than $3 million in county income tax revenue, according to a Sage Policy Group report.

“Adding on a piece to a successful program like that is a major win for the region,” Anderson said. “From an economic development perspective, what you look for is growing businesses that continue to hire.”

Hemmerly said the tech park has benefited the region by drawing people to the Catonsville and Arbutus areas.

“Many folks working at bwtech live, rent or buy homes in the area,” Hemmerly said. “And of course they are customers for businesses, retail and what not. It’s certainly going to be helpful to the immediate area.”

The companies based at bwtech@UMBC often work with students on research, Hemmerly said, and often hire students or residents when they expand.

Anupam Joshi, chair of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at UMBC and head of the school's Cybersecurity Center, said that iCyberCenter will expand student opportunities for collaboration and improve the school’s research into how to protect against global threats.

“In pure academic research, you go down some paths,” Joshi said. “But to talk to people operationally, who are trying to sell a product, working with industry and government, it gives you a better perspective on which challenges are more immediate, what’s the long-term issue.”

Joshi said that because cyber attacks are so easy to launch from anywhere, and because different countries have different sets of regulations and restrictions, students need to learn to work cross-culturally to defend against attacks.

“You need global collaboration against an increasingly global threat,” Joshi said.

Though the iCyberCenter will bring new companies into the area, potentially competing with those that are already here, Joshi said that instead the program could bring opportunities for global collaboration to area businesses.

“There could be collaboration where I might have a solution, but don’t understand your market,” Joshi said. “I could work with you to tailor and integrate solutions that would be an exact fit for a particular market.”

Besides, Joshi said: “The cybersecurity pie right now is so big that there’s more than enough to go around."

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