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NexDefense Wants to Defend Our Nation’s Industrial Infrastructure

As the Internet of Things emerges from concept to reality, so is the sharing of data from machine to machine and the proliferation of technologies that enable it. This brings to sharp relief important questions about security particularly in an era of increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks.

The stakes are particularly high for critical infrastructure providers – the power grid and oil and gas – where even a minor malfunction has the potential to affect the safety of millions. One Atlanta cyber security firm hoping to lead the way in stopping or at least mitigating these and other threats is NexDefense, a cyber security firm specializing in the protection of industrial control systems (ICS).

At the heart of NexDefense is Sophia, an “industrial anomaly detection system” that monitors for unusual or unauthorized communication patterns and alerts control system operators of any unusual activity. Sophia is unique in that it allows workers to visualize data as it moves back and forth through the network and, over time, is even capable of “white listing” authorized patterns while keeping out others.

Named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, Sophia was originally developed at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), a nuclear energy research facility owned by the U.S. Federal government, as a joint collaboration between the INL, U.S. Department of Energy and the Battelle Energy Alliance.

When INL put out a bid to commercialize the platform, co-founders Michael Assante and Derek Harp formed NexDefense to secure the exclusive licensing rights. NexDefense won the bid in 2013, and Assante and Harp called on Michael Sayre, with whom they had previously founded LogiKeep in 1997 (now IntelliShield, owned by Cisco) to rejoin the team as CEO. Though originally headquartered in California, the NexDefense team ultimately relocated to Atlanta because of the city’s thriving cyber security industry.

“Sophia’s roots are important because the technologies deployed within, characteristics of, and operating requirements around industrial control system (ICS) networks – especially for critical infrastructure – can differ significantly from traditional enterprise IT networks,” Sayre says. Most enterprise IT solutions, for example, aren’t equipped to look for the kinds of communication patterns that emerge in an ICS.

Catching Up to the Internet of Things

The rise of the Internet of Things now adds an additional layer of complexity to an industry with an already high level of complexity and therefore expensive to protect and maintain, particularly as infrastructure providers incorporate more smart devices, such as smart meters, into their daily operations. Admittedly, Sayre says, the market is already behind where it should be in terms of protecting those assets.

“That creates major challenges for critical infrastructure providers trying to protect their industrial control systems and operations with massive new numbers of devices introducing new vulnerabilities and threats into their networks at an increasing rate,” Sayre says. “It also creates major challenges for cyber security companies who need to develop broader solutions at an increasing pace in order to gain ground on both inadvertent and malicious threats to their customers operations.”

To address those challenges, he says critical infrastructure providers and cyber security companies will need to properly prioritize and fill the most dangerous security gaps first, and increase their investments in the necessary tools to prevent, detect and respond to damages caused by potential attacks. Naturally, he adds, NexDefense aims to be a leader in that effort.

NexDefense is already showing signs that it is gaining traction in that regard. Following a successful beta program in 2014, the startup completed a $2.4 million seed round in November, adding cyber security veteran Tom Noonan to their board of directors in the process. Later that month, Sophia was released to the public and in December NexDefense completed its first sale. Based in the Atlanta Tech Village, NexDefense currently employs 20 but Sayre says he hopes to double that by the end of the year. NexDefense also presented at the 2014 Venture Atlanta conference last October.

In addition to building out his team, Sayre says he hopes to close a Series A round this year, as well as boost sales and expand the Sophia platform’s current offerings.

Photo Credit: Ivan Plata via Flickr

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