by Aden Klein
On February 26th, the Duke Sanford Cyber Policy Program, led by Professor David Hoffman, hosted the first-ever Cybersecurity Pitch Competition at the Duke University Innovation and Entrepreneurship Bullpen. The event gave 5 teams from Duke University and the Research Triangle the opportunity to present live to a panel of experts in technology venture capital.
With support from two Duke student organizations, Duke Cyber Club and Duke Ethical Tech, the pitch competition represents the latest in Duke’s efforts to develop the next generation of cybersecurity leaders. The competition recognizes the importance of startup innovation to help address the significant cybersecurity risks faced by individuals, companies and governments. The winning team received a $25,000 grant from Paladin Capital, a leading cybersecurity investment company.
Cybersecurity, data protection and cyber safety represent a rapidly growing field in the startup ecosystem. Products that advance these three goals create a more secure environment for business and enhance consumer privacy while also defending US critical infrastructure and national security. The Duke Sanford Cyber Policy Program aims to explore cybersecurity public-private partnerships by identifying and supporting innovation and entrepreneurship.
Panel of Experts
Sanford convened a panel of experts in the cybersecurity law, venture capital, and entrepreneurship space to judge pitches and offer feedback: Duke Professor and Teaching Director of the Duke Financial Economics Center Emma Rasiel; John Fogg, a partner at the law firm Robinson Bradshaw; Intel Capital Vice President Mark Rostick; and Paladin Capital Chief Investment Officer Christopher Steed. The panel contained decades of experience and thought leadership in the cybersecurity startup space, offering pitch teams invaluable guidance on how to grow their ideas and how to build successful business models.
Pitch teams presented ideas for cybersecurity products based around hardware, software, AI and machine learning, and more.
The winning pitch came from Duke senior Nish Singaraju, who presented his startup company, Blanket. Blanket is a machine learning tool that tests for model security and privacy and provides metadata about datasets, models, and privacy and security measurements in the same place. Blanket exhibited a high level of sophistication and immediate applicability to a pressing cybersecurity challenge, as well as a clear vision and pathway to successful growth as a startup that truly set it apart from the other competitors. Nish and the Blanket team were awarded the $25,000 grant from Paladin Capital to continue growing his business, developing a full prototype, and securing more clients.
The second-place pitch came from Research Triangle-area entrepreneur Lauri Elliot and the Spherio team. Spherio is a development tool that seeks to build secure data ecosystems for no data environments with a focus on Africa. Spherio offers regions without digital infrastructure a platform to build out and support data services ranging from business registration to personal identification. With applications in international development, economic growth, and data privacy and security, Spherio is an innovative product that truly impressed the panel of judges.
The third-place pitch came from another team of Duke students. Seniors Joanne Kim, a public policy major at Sanford, and Sam Lambda, a software engineer with internship experience at Amazon and Tesla, pitched Fiscal Future, a secure budgeting software platform to combat corruption, improve budgetary processes, and ensure that defense systems and cybersecurity infrastructure remains funded. Fiscal Future demonstrated a wide range of applicability, with potential uses ranging from local government to university systems. The second and third place teams won startup packages from the Robinson Bradshaw law firm, which will help them launch their companies.
The inaugural Cybersecurity Pitch Competition was an inspiring success and a testament to the role that the Sanford School and Duke occupy in driving forward cybersecurity in higher education. The latest in a series of ambitious cybersecurity events hosted by the Sanford Cyber Policy Program at Duke, the Cybersecurity Pitch Competition gave students and pitch teams alike the opportunity to gain experience and insights into the world of venture capital while also contributing to solutions for some of today’s largest cybersecurity challenges.
Aden Klein is a Duke University junior majoring in public policy. Aden is the president of Duke Cyber and a research assistant in the Duke Sanford Cybersecurity Policy Program.