According to the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) around 50,000 people are currently employed in the United Kingdom’s cybersecurity sector. And the industry is continuing to grow. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of companies operating in the field increased by 21% to a total of 1,483.
A buoyant sector, then, but just how much scope is there for new companies to launch and grow in a market that is arguably more than adequately served by established names and early-stage hopefuls? Well, according to Saj Huq – Director of Innovation at co-working center, Plexal – the cybersecurity sector may be “noisy” in terms of the number of players and solutions vying for attention but there are gaps that need to be filled. Innovation is still required.
And last week, Plexal – which operates both as a co-working facility and an innovation hub – announced the launch of Britain’s “largest” cyber accelerator. Dubbed the Cyber Runway, the initiative aims to assist 160 companies between now and April 2022. Coordinated by Plexal, the accelerator is rolling three existing programs – Hut Zero, Cyber 101, and Cyber Accelerator – into a unified operation.
But does the U.K. need another cyber accelerator – and a very large one at that? When I spoke to Saj Huq, I was keen to ask him about the thinking behind the project and what it is expected to deliver.
As Huq acknowledges, this has been a successful sector and one that has been catalyzed by government funding and a national cybersecurity strategy. “But there is an ongoing need,” he says. “For one thing, there is an opportunity to be a world leader. And there is a national security requirement.”
All well and good. That is what you would expect any accelerator worth its salt to do. But what perhaps sets Cyber Runway apart is its intention to attract a more diverse group of founders to a sector that can appear daunting to outsiders.
“It is a difficult industry to break into,” says Huq. “It is seen as inaccessible.”
That’s partly because cybersecurity is not only dependent – to a great extent – on cutting-edge tech and ongoing R&D, but also because of the nature of customer expectations. In their upper echelons, cybersecurity companies are peopled not only with software and hardware experts, but also alumni of the military, intelligence services, and major organizations. In other words, people with the kind of experience and background that impresses potential customers.
Security, adds Huq, is also seen as metropolitan activity – an activity that is undertaken in clusters such as London’s tech city. That’s actually something of a misperception. There are big cyber hubs well away from the capital in places such as Cheltenham and Manchester, plus nineteen universities that have been identified as centers of excellence.
“But innovation needs money and VCs don’t necessarily have links in the regions,” says Huq. Thus, one purpose of the accelerator is to forge links between companies working right across the UK and London-based venture capitalists.
There is also an inclusivity dimension. Cyber Runway is seeking to not only nurture entrepreneurs who might otherwise have been deterred from the sector, but also more women and people from ethnic minority and neuro-diverse communities.
To that end, the accelerator has been designed to enable people with good ideas – even if they are not necessarily technologists – to found their own companies.
On that last point, Huq cites the example of women in the industry. “There is actually a bigger percentage of women working cybersecurity than in other parts of tech,” he says. “But they are not necessarily founders. They may be in roles such as Chief Marketing Officer. We are hoping to encourage more women to become founders.”
So inclusivity and diversity are built key targets. The accelerator aims to have 30 percent female-led companies in the cohort and 15 percent with BAME founders.
Launch Grow and Scale.
There are three groups of companies within Runway. The first is comprised of launch-stage businesses; the second is made up of those who are beginning to make money and grow; and the third is populated by scaling companies.
“At the launch stage, the focus is on ideation and encouraging more entrepreneurs to come into the sector,” says Huq. At the Grow stage companies will have their minimum viable product and we’ll be helping them to raise capital and find customers. Companies in the Scale program will be assisted with national and international growth, finding new markets, and planning for the medium and long-term.
Each component will have different companies, but Huq stresses that they can be moved about within the bigger program.
Cyber Runway won’t be taking equity but it will introduce cohort members to VCs and angels within the ecosystem. Mentoring and advice will be available through regional hubs across the country, meaning that businesses won’t have to relocate to London to take advantage of the program. In the pandemic era, video conferencing will also play a part.
At the end of the day, cybersecurity is cybersecurity. It requires the input of technologists who not only understand the software and hardware but also the evolving nature of the security threat. So, you could argue that this will always be a daunting sector to enter. But Huq sees an opportunity to change challenge preconceptions. “The language around cyber is very militaristic – it’s all about fear, risk and threat. But it can also be about excitement and transformation.”
And as he sees it, there is room for new skillsets and people who see problems in a different way.