Encrypted Chat App Wickr Creates New Non-Profit Arm, Nico Sell Steps Down As CEO To Lead It

Some big changes ahead for Wickr, the messaging app that emerged in the wake of the NSA private data leaks to offer consumers an encrypted, more secure alternative to mainstream services like Facebook.

As of today, the company is splitting its operations in two: a for-profit division that will double down on Wickr as a business, specifically targeting enterprises and as a paid, white-label service; and a non-profit Wickr Foundation, dedicated to advocating secure and safe communications among groups that might need it most, such as children, human rights activists and journalists.

And, as part of the separation, co-founder and outspoken privacy advocate Nico Sell is stepping away as CEO of Wickr and moving over to become the CEO of the Wickr Foundation. She will be replaced in the Wickr CEO role by Mark Fields, who had been leading the Strategic Investment Group for CME, one of Wickr’s investors.

Sell is also taking a role as co-chair of the Board of Directors of Wickr. Others on the board include investors Jim Breyer and Gilman Louie (the other co-chair).

The leaks of data from secretive government agencies like the NSA in the U.S. — which emerged in full force starting in 2013 — cast a strong light on how our online activity is tracked and observed. Coupled with that we have seen a surge of criticism over how a lot of free online services collect our data in the name of “more relevant content.”

These two currents have created something of a perfect storm for a new wave of apps and even special phones and other hardware designed to give consumers and businesses more private and encrypted alternatives for staying connected.

But there is also an inherent tension for many of these services.

The push to make them truly private essentially restricts how they can make money from its users, since advertising and marketing, and all the tracking that goes along with them, is out of the question.

This is not an impossible task, but it does mean that if you are trying to build a business you have more pressure to use other revenue models which could prove to be a harder sell. Wickr from the outset had committed itself to always remaining free for users.

Indeed, when I first wrote about the company in 2014, when it picked up its first round of funding — $9 million led by Alsop Louie Partners — I wondered aloud if the company would be able to stick to its very principled guns as it matured. (Sell, who also co-founded the DEF CON security/hacker conference, has in the past referred to Facebook as “the devil”.)

Speaking with both Sell and Fields yesterday, it’s not directly clear why Wickr decided to split in this way, but I suspect that maybe some of that tension proved to be too challenging when trying to execute on the company’s business.

Sell tells me that to date there have been 6 million downloads of the app to date, and it has collectively served over 1 billion secret messages. “We have seen an appetite for this app,” she says.

While there have been some notable (and quirky) additions to Wickr’s functionality — recall the stenography-inspired cats to mask photos on Facebook — perhaps some of the company’s forays into building a business around its technology haven’t panned out as it had hoped. A paid, white-label version of the app launched with high hopes last year, but to date the company has only named a couple of customers.

Now it will be trying to widen that B2B remit even further.

“We have a platform and more than just an application,” Fields says. The business side will be looking at ways of selling “Encryption as tools for those who need it. Wickr is well suited to help enterprises a lot, and we are talking with a lot of companies to use the core technology and extend the functionality to make it an enterprise grade app, or tool they can use to build their own apps. There are a variety of ways to work with enterprises that we are going to pursue.”

The idea will be that the Wickr Foundation will continue to have access to all of the technology and products that Wickr has built and will built. But Sell told me in an interview that Wickr is still working out how it will allocate other resources, such as the venture funding the startup has raised ($39 million to date), across its two divisions.

In a way, it will be about Sell putting her efforts back to what compelled her to start Wickr in the first place.

“The foundation’s goal is the reason why I started Wickr. The strong belief we have is  that to have a strong society, you need freedom of information,” she said, citing the Mozilla Foundation and the Wikimedia Foundation as two models of how a dichotomy can exist with business and nonprofit today.

“The vision here is that I see thousands of Wickr apps on the platform. We’ll focus on building out tech for human rights activists and advocacy and tech for teenagers and we’ll also work on the trust component whether its crypto that is ours or other people’s.” She says she will also be spending a lot of time in Washington, DC, making her voice heard with legislators and others.