Ex-military tech entrepreneurs share their business advice
Heropreneurs is a community of successful business people that offers support and mentorship to help ex-military personnel develop their business ideas. This year, the annual Heropreneurs Awards, which celebrate the achievements of former members of the British Armed Forces, saw the addition of the ‘Technology Business of the Year Award’, sponsored by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and supported by TechVets - a not-for-profit company, on a mission to build a bridge for veterans and service leavers into cyber security and technology careers.
"The transferrable skills of our veteran community make a significant contribution to the prosperity and security of the UK,” says Mark Milton of TechVets. “It is a pleasure to be able to shine a light on the successes of the community in support of the fantastic work of Heropreneurs."
“Technology Business of the Year was a really hard one to decide on, as all three are such interesting, innovative organisations” said Amanda Rayner, Head of the Heropreneurs Awards.
"From cyber defense to data analytics services, this year’s nominees are bringing game-changing systems to the tech sector in unique ways. It was one of the awards the judges spent the longest time deliberating over."
We spoke to the three nominees for Technology Business of the Year, who are all AWS customers, and asked them to share their advice for budding entrepreneurs.
Dave Atkinson, Founder and CEO, Senseon (Winner)
I joined the Royal Marines when I was 18, before moving into specialist military units. During my time overseas, I researched and developed offensive cyber techniques. I designed and delivered a specialist training course for the unit. I then worked with a number of different government departments building their cyber capabilities. When I left in 2015, I began working in incident response. This is where you help those that have been the victim of a cyber attack to clean up the mess. It was then that I realised that, unless we fundamentally change how we think about cyber security, there’s no way we stand a chance of defending our organisations in the future.
We set up Senseon in October 2017 to build an automated system for cyber defence. By automating the detection and investigation of cyber threats we help protect businesses and free their security and IT teams from the burden of exhaustive, manual analysis. Senseon now has customers in the US, Europe, the UK, and the Caribbean, ranging from FTSE 100 firms to small companies.
If you are setting up your own business, it’s really important to understand the meaning of focus. One thing at a time. For military people - don’t underestimate the value of the culture that we were all part of. It can be a real differentiator within your own business. Don’t change who you are. But the most important skill is leadership. You cannot do this by yourself. The quality of your team has a direct correlation to your potential for success.
Hugh Christensen, Founder and Chief Architect, BMLL Technologies
My background is a mixture of military (I was a captain in the Army), academia and quantitative finance. I set up BMLL Technologies as a spin out from the Signal Processing Lab at Cambridge.
The inspiration to start the company came from an industry-led research project with some of the world’s largest financial exchanges. During the project it became apparent that there was an opportunity to help the exchanges handle a particularly complex dataset, while enabling the end users to extract value from that data. Since founding BMLL Technologies, we have built partnerships with all the major trading venues. We collect the most granular data produced at these venues and put it onto our centralised AWS platform. From this platform our customers can easily access the data through APIs along with computational resources and analytics.
For example, if a bank is trading on a stock exchange, they need to understand how to optimally interact with that trading venue. Using this data and machine learning algorithms, we can help that bank to trade optimally, to the customer's advantage. Ultimately this helps make markets more effective, transparent and better for everyone. It’s about the democratisation of data. What all our users have in common is that they want to be able to extract value from a very niche and complex data set.
The three things that any successful entrepreneur needs to be able to do are:
- Identify a sizable target addressable market.
- Come up with a business plan that’s able to capture a significant chunk of that market.
- Perhaps most importantly, build a team capable of executing on that business plan.
To the entrepreneurs of tomorrow I would say, use your own experiences to understand where opportunities exist. People go through life experiencing dissatisfaction with things and that generally means that there’s an opportunity. Perseverance is essential. If it was easy somebody would have done it already.
Oz Alashe MBE, CEO and Founder, CybSafe
I guess you could say I’m an accidental entrepreneur. I joined the army after university and served for seventeen years. For twelve of those I was working on counter-terrorism and national security. Among other things, I watched how organised criminal groups exploited vulnerabilities - stealing money and data systems to fund larger criminal activity such as terrorism.
Shortly after I left, I founded CybSafe - a data analytics company focused on the human aspect of cyber security. Approximately 90% of breaches involve human error and so we’re focusing on this human element of cyber security. We have an intelligent cloud-based software platform, which increases in efficacy over time as it learns. We went to market in April 2017 and we’re now a 40-person strong team working with over 265 customers.
Former service people are in many ways uniquely well-prepared to be entrepreneurs. But we also need to work doubly hard to reach outwards and connect with people who have a very different experience to us. I really enjoyed the purpose-driven nature of what I did when I served. What I’m doing now is building a group of likeminded people who are equally purpose-driven and determined to make society safer and more secure. The crossover is quite simple.
Of course you’re going from an organisation like the military that’s so established, to being a start-up and building everything from scratch. We do strategy, but at the same time, we all help to clear the bins. In the military, I worked alongside a diverse group of people who were brought together and bound by a single purpose. I would say you should be ready to adapt and be willing to work hard when starting your own business, and find this one purpose to unite your team.
“In this golden age of tech, and with so many current social issues relating to the work of each of the three nominees, their approach to building businesses is inspiring,” says Chris Hayman, Director, Public Sector, Amazon Web Services UK and Ireland. “Their work will help shape the industry in the years to come.”
Earlier this year Amazon were proud to receive a Gold Award in the Ministry of Defence’s Employer Recognition Scheme, recognising our ongoing commitment to act as advocates for current and former military personnel and their families.