UK spy agency-backed cyber security incubator picks first seven startups

A GCHQ-backed startup incubator has opened its doors in the UK, announcing its first cohort of seven startups participating in the three month accelerator program (see below for the list of teams).

The GCHQ Cyber Accelerator initiative was announced by the government in September, as a tie up between the domestic signals intelligence & cyber security agency; the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS); and (Telefonica’s) Wayra UK accelerator initiative, which is running the program.

In recent years the UK government has been pushing cyber security as a priority, with the government committing £1.9 billion to a National Cyber Security Strategy that runs to 2020, with funding being made available for a range of initiatives; including beefing up cyber security staff at intelligence agencies; setting up a national cyber security hub to concentrate expertise and lead by example; and widening government procurement for security technologies — including by investing in security startups.

The GCHQ backed accelerator is part of this strategy to drive cyber security ideas and innovation, domestically. It’s based within a new Cheltenham Cyber Innovation Centre, putting the selected startup teams within easy reach of agency staff and expertise — to, as the government puts it, “allow them to expand capability, improve ideas and devise cutting-edge products to outpace current and emerging threats”.

Two years ago then chancellor George Osborne said the government’s aim was to create what he dubbed “an arc of cyber excellence” from the headquarters of the GCHQ intelligence agency at Cheltenham, through the cities of Bristol and Bath to Exeter — with the aim of “making the south-west a world leader in cyber security services”. A second center is planned to open in London later this year, with DCMS is contributing up to £50m over the next five years to deliver the two centers.

GCHQ is not investing in the accelerated startups, but a spokesman for Wayra UK told TechCrunch the agency will be providing mentors — and, once the program has finished, teams may be able to go on to gain contractual relationships with the agency, through established procurement processes, and/or invitations for “deeper research opportunities”, and partnerships with existing major GCHQ suppliers as a result of the links they forge.

Participating start-ups also receive a financial grant (£5,000) provided by Wayra, which is also not taking equity at this point, and access to work space and IT equipment.

The seven teams selected for the first cohort are:

  • CounterCraft, a counterintelligence company, that’s aiming to protect large organisations with a cybersecurity deception platform, fooling adversaries with decoy computers, false data and fake identities
  • Cyberowl, an early-warning system for cyber attacks, incorporating “advanced security analytics and heuristic methods”
  • Cybersmart, a platform that automates implementation, certification and compliance with cyber security standards
  • FutureScaper, a collective intelligence platform that provides data visualisations in order to make sense of complex, uncertain, or volatile issues
  • Spherical Defence, a Banking API intrusion detection system that uses deep learning to detect hacking attempts by establishing a baseline of normal communication
  • StatusToday an AI-powered intelligence platform that aims to understand human behavior in the workplace, boosting security against insider attacks and detecting inadvertent mistakes
  • Verimuchme, a digital wallet and exchange platform to secure, verify and re-use personal information. “Through ID-based crypto-technology, individuals and enterprises are linked to personal information that can be shared digitally over and over again”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Countercraft co-founder and CMO Dan Brett said the San Sebastian-based team is hoping to forge strong links in the UK as a result of the program.

“We are designing a defensive product to allow large organisations defend themselves from the most advanced attacks available, and where better to get advice about what the companies could be facing than from GCHQ. Our aim is to provide a new type of defensive layer that improves security for companies in the UK and globally. We believe this will be a great step in making our product better,” he added.

It’s not clear whether the GCHQ cyber accelerator will run a second program at this point. Wayra’s spokesman said the program will be reviewed after the first 3-month period and a decision on what happens next will be taken then.