In October, TechCrunch broke the news that In-Q-Tel, a private investment firm spearheaded by the CIA had made an undisclosed investment in a Center City-based networking software product called Connectify.
In-Q-Tel’s press release made clear that the investment was to improve the security and connection aggregation capability of Connectify, a consumer software solution that can turn any Windows 7 computer into a wireless hotspot.
What wasn’t reported is the reach of that product.
Connectify co-founder Alex Gizis told Technically Philly in September that the software has over 3 million downloads, including more than a million in China, where Internet censorship is a storied issue.
And though the company has turned its attention to commercial technology, and changed its name to reflect that shift, the investment isn’t the team’s first venture into state-backed tech development.
For nearly 10 years, the company has been known as Nomadio, Inc., based at the Marketplace Design Center, not far from 30th Street Station, where it has had transit access to U.S. military organizations outside of Philadelphia. Much of its work over the last decade was in creating technology to solve “super hard” networking problems in the defense field, Gizis says.
In 2005, Nomadio developed the technology used to control the EOD Bombot, a small, remote-controlled, unmanned vehicle used in the Middle East to disable improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The company created software for reliably driving robots for miles even in the face of terrible radio interference.
The vehicles, which can travel as fast as 35 miles per hour and which are equipped with video surveillance technology, can approach an IED, dispatch a small amount of explosives, move away from its target and detonate the IED without causing damage to itself. By 2006, some 3,000 Bombots were sent to Iraq and Afganistan.
Gizis, who is 38, has been working in technology since the 90s, when he was CEO of Group Cortex, an early website development consulting firm that was sold to AnswerThink in 1999. He left the company in 2002 to start Nomadio with co-founder and CEO Bhana Grover. They created an early consumer vision of augmented reality, which got the attention of the Air Force, though the work was ahead of its time, Gizis says. That was the just the beginning of the company’s work with defense and intelligence projects.
“I believe we saved some lives. Now we want to do commercial software,” Gizis says.
A video of the Bombot technology can be seen below.
Connectify, the company’s first commercial success, is able to turn any Windows 7 PC into wireless hotspots to be shared across devices. A user can easily allow other laptops, phones and portable devices—any device with WiFi connectivity—to share a single connection without a wireless router.
Gizis told Technically Philly earlier this month that with the investment from In-Q-Tel, technology will be developed to reinvent the Virtual Private Network.
In-Q-Tel declined to participate in an interview for this story, but an announcement statement came from William Strecker, Executive Vice President of Architecture & Engineering and CTO of IQT, in a press release. “Our strategic partnership with Connectify will provide our U.S. Intelligence Community customers with access to the most advanced wireless networking software available.”
The software will enable users to create spontaneous private networks that work in tandem to strengthen the throughput and reliability of those connections.
“Today, you dial-in to a VPN and wait until it connects. We think we can fix that by making it work magically, similar to how the iPad works now” Gizis says. “They’re looking to have the software enhanced with security features that [U.S. intelligence agencies] need.”
The idea for Connectify came from an experiment. Demoing one its military technologies that allowed for the remote control of a Humvee vehicle miles away across a wireless network, the team was baffled by their own inability to share Internet files as widely. After a late night hacking session, “we started off with a very basic feature set and suddenly we were on the front page of Slashdot,” Gizis says.
Since releasing version 3.0 of the software, Connectify became the company’s “real driver of revenue.” Today, the software has over 3 million downloads and a half-million active users. Utilizing a freemium model, users can trial a limited version for free, or they can pay $29 per year for full access to a premium version.
But in China, which claims a third of the software’s 3 million downloads, users are not paying. “We’re fulfilling some use-case there. But we’ve only sold four [premium versions] there,” Gizis says.
When asked if he thought that use-case might have been to avoid authoritarian control of the Internet, Gizis had his doubts. “If they’re watching your traffic, they’ll see this one computer going to all of these websites.”
To his point, the country’s government can simply block access to VPN and proxy servers.
A report from The Atlantic‘s James Fallows this September pointed to the popularity of and recent obstacles to Virtual Private Networks in China.
He noted China’s indifference to encrypted VPN technology in a 2008 piece, and how that’s changed in 2011. In February, “serious disruption of VPN activity began … officials from VPN companies said they were being targeted, in a way they’d never experienced before,” he wrote.
Before the announcement of investment from In-Q-Tel, Gizis told us that a Mac OS X version could be coming. After the investment, we can imagine a lot more features on the way.-30-