What's driving Maryland cybersecurity's economic growth? - Technical.ly Baltimore

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May 1, 2019 6:32 pm

What’s driving Maryland cybersecurity’s economic growth?

Macro factors and local talent combine to make cybersecurity a growing industry that the state is looking to expand.

NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Cybersecurity has been in the news often locally, and it’s not just because of breaches.

When it comes to business coverage, it’s the field where we’re seeing some of the largest exits and development plans. With an eye toward the future, we also see plenty of education and workforce development initiatives aligned with this area.

Driving the growth is a mix: the public and private, the tech-enabled and the human.

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To be sure, the threats and changing nature of how attacks are carried out means the efforts to protect data will have to grow. In the area alone we’ve seen organizations from MedStar Health to the City of Baltimore be affected in the last year.

“Cyber crime has become a huge money-making business for criminals and will get bigger,” said TJ Tajalli, a cofounder of bwtech@UMBC Cyber Incubator-based OnSystem Logic who has started and exited multiple cybersecurity companies. “Nation-sponsored cyber warfare is increasing in size and scope. The fear of having substantial damage done to a business as a result of cyber crime is real and well-founded. These and other factors will fuel the growth of cyber for the foreseeable future.”

The growth of technology itself also results in an increased need for protection. Evan Dornbush, CEO of Baltimore-based Point3, points to the growth of internet-connected devices — from cars to refrigerators — as one example. (It’s an area where Maryland company ReFirm Labs is working.)

Maryland stakes its claim to being a key home to the people who have long been working on this problem. The cybersecurity community’s roots are found in the federal government. With its location near D.C., the state is a home for federal agencies. Many are based at Fort Meade, located in Anne Arundel County, most prominently the National Security Agency (NSA).

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Maryland Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schulz sees more investment coming in this area.

“The proposed federal budget would increase the federal government’s spending on cybersecurity to $17.4 billion,” she said. “With the major federal agencies and military commands engaged in cybersecurity — NSA, DISA, U.S. Cyber Command, CECOM, among others — located in Maryland, the economic impact of these entities is expected to grow as federal funding support increases,” she said.

There have also been solutions developed outside that Fort Meade base that are leading to signs of growth on a corporate scale.

For one, Columbia-based Tenable went public last year, raising $251 million. There was also evidence of bigger scale just this month: Hanover-based KeyW’s acquisition by Jacobs Engineering Group, announced this month, brought a price tag of $603 million.

Schulz also pointed to real estate development, as Tenable’s new headquarters is the planned anchor of a new development called the Merriweather District in its hometown of Columbia. Additionally, development in areas such as Annapolis Junction and Columbia Gateway are anchored by cybersecurity, Schulz said.

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Leaders are also looking at more growth by growing startups here and attracting companies. As we reported in February, the efforts to galvanize more talented founders with experience working on cutting-edge technology to develop tech products are driving big plans around the planned Cyber Town USA in Baltimore’s Port Covington.

While it’s often talked about that six-figure salaries and job security of a government role makes it a tougher decision to take a risk and start a company, there are increasing signs of startups forming: The growth of firms like RedOwl, which was recently acquired, ZeroFOX, Contrast Security and Light Point Security showed a path.

Recent investment over the last several months for startups in the state like Baltimore-based Terbium Labs, Columbia-based Bandura, and Hanover’s Dragos point to another generation of companies, and show that there’s interest from investors in the region, as well as outside.

As cyber incubator manager at bwtech@UMBC, Nicholas Zajciw is leading an effort focused on supporting young companies that has also been underway on multiple fronts at the research park connected to the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville. Building on the strengths of UMBC as a home to education in the cybersecurity field, the hub is home to a cyber incubator which currently has 52 member companies, and another 10 in the wider research park, said Zajciw.

Leaders have talked about the incubator as providing economic development from a regional perspective, and it’s had grad companies go on to be acquired, as well.

“We see ourselves at a really exciting point where we work with a diverse range of companies,” Zajciw said, and there’s also a focus on “growing that to include a greater number of early-stage product companies that are able to really achieve some of those wins that we want to see in the region.”

Locating companies close to campus increases proximity of growing companies to researchers and students. bwtech@UMBC also has a program, called Cync, which links startups with talent at Northrop Grumman at the incubator to help speed commercialization of cyber technologies.

The incubator also sees growth potential beyond Maryland. Along with the Maryland Department of Commerce, it set up the iCyberCenter to offer European companies a point to learn more about entering the U.S. market. Recently the effort hosted five founders from Australia, Portugal and Finland. It’s also played host to companies from the Netherlands, among others.

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For the companies that are here, Dornbush said the state is offering several unique options to help cybersecurity companies. Last year, the Cybersecurity Association of Maryland, where he is a board member, encouraged legislation to provide tax credits for investors and companies who “Buy Maryland Cybersecurity” within the state.

“What Maryland uniquely provides is a stronger community than pretty much anywhere else on the planet,” he said.

Zajciw sees a regional approach.

“Within the past couple years we’re really seeing resources that work together and they realize that if they cooperate and act like a team, you’re really able to grow the region as a whole,” he said.

And Tajalli sees a number of strengths.

“The cybersecurity community in Maryland is extremely helpful in facilitating networking, providing advice for working with the government, recruiting of technical talent, and coaching of less-experienced entrepreneurs,” he said.

However, he also said the region has a need for more capital from a number of different sources, which he said is the most important thing that startups with an idea to complete a product and enter the market.

“Innovation will suffer if we don’t have a diverse set of decision makers making bets on different segments of cyber (or any other area for that matter),” he said. “For more mature companies with non-government related jobs, Maryland needs to find a way to keep the existing cyber companies here and encourage their growth here as well. This is not easy but other states have done it and there is no reason Maryland cannot do the same or better given the many geographical and other advantages that it has.”

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While startup growth and job creation are often linked, there’s another place where open positions are coming from, as well. At Point3, which looks to match up job seekers and employers, Dornbush sees companies in a variety of fields standing up cybersecurity teams. Even smaller outfits have a need, he said, and often they’re looking for the kind of talent that could start a new operation.

“Companies that did not think they would be in cybersecurity, now have to have that competency,” he said. “You can’t always outsource and you can’t always rely on products. You have to have people.”

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