Building the Cyber Runway – an accelerator for cyber businesses
To mark International Women’s Day on March, 8th, we spoke to three female entrepreneurs in the cyber-market, each of whom extolled the virtues of a particular cyber-accelerator program in the UK, called the Cyber Runway, run by a company called Plexal.
To get a view of the program from the other side – and to establish how successful programs can advance not just women in cyber, but also cyber businesses as a whole in the 2020s, we sat down with Saj Huq, Chief Commercial Officer at Plexal.
The UK government has set itself a somewhat amorphous challenge to turn the country into a post-Brexit cyber-superpower. Is that how the Cyber Runway came about?
At Plexal, we work to try and deliver on the government’s ideas of turning the UK into a science and technology superpower, yes. We’ve always worked with startups, and through projects like the Cyber Runway, we aim to close the gaps between governmental ambition, startup ambition, and the successful future that both ends of the spectrum want to see.
Women in tech: the pipeline problem
To actually deliver on that promise, we specifically work at the intersection between large and small organizations, between public and private sector organizations, looking to bring them all together to drive progress, particularly in areas of national security and prosperity for the UK as a whole.
We’re the innovation partner to the National Cybersecurity Centre as well, so we’re well placed to deliver connectivity and development to potential cyer-startups.
What role specifically can the Cyber Runway play in turning the UK into that “cyber-superpower,” do you think?
The ambition to be a science and tech superpower is obviously dependent on developing innovation, progressing innovation, but in critical and emerging technologies, like cyber, it’s vital to manage the risks associated with emerging tech, while unlocking the opportunities from those technologies.
In the national cyber strategy, there are five different pillars. Pillar one specifically focuses on what the government calls “ecosystem,” which means developing those networks and the ecosystem around new products and services around emerging businesses, but also around the skills that are required to grow a thriving and prosperous sector. And Cyber Runway is at the core of that.
So in terms of how Cyber Runway can directly enable the UK’s ambitions in science and tech, obviously it helps by ensuring a throughput of new and emerging businesses that are bringing disruptive ideas to market, which not only meet the current cybersecurity needs of the UK, but also its future needs in that area.
The reality is that a lot of these businesses, especially as they start to grow and scale, could become real drivers of economic growth.
What makes the Cyber Runway different from any other tech business accelerator program out there? You’ve mentioned that you’re positioned well to be a facilitator between sectors, but is that all there is to it?
I think that depends on the answers to two questions. One is why do we need a particular focus on a domain such as cybersecurity for an accelerator program? And the other is what makes Cyber Runway different from what’s come before in the ecosystem?
The focus on innovation in terms of driving the growth of a thriving and resilient cyber sector has been critical to the UK cybersecurity strategy since 2016. The UK Government stepped in in 2016, to fund a whole swathe of initiatives to help develop the supply side of the market.
That was predicated on two main aspects – the need to diversify the supply chain, in order to reduce barriers to entry for new businesses, who are developing new products and services in quite a difficult space, and then helping those startups to grow.
If the UK establishes a leadership position in a growing global market, that’s good for all of us from a prosperity perspective. So that’s why the government decided to focus on establishing a suite of innovation programs.
But how does the Cyber Runway differ from other accelerator programs?
Size is important here – it’s the fifth largest program there is. So in the last two years, we’ve supported over 170 businesses through the program. In 2022, we started delivering Cyber Runway as the UK’s first integrated growth platform for businesses at different levels of maturity. So in effect, they can go from having an initial idea without a product, all the way through a package of support, which can take them through to scaling up, all in one place.
It just makes it easy for them to navigate the networks that you need, get the mentors that you need, and the business support you need, by working with one access point to an ecosystem of services and support.
It’s also the first program that has had equality, diversity and inclusion built in by design. So we’ve had a particular focus on supporting underrepresented founders and founding teams, both from a gender perspective, but also from a minority ethnic perspective, and obviously from a disability perspective, too.
Bringing down the barriers.
We’ve specifically sought to reduce the barriers to entry into the program, which might otherwise have inhibited entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, so they can access the support they need.
And once people are on the program, there’s a heavy emphasis on creating a central node where people can connect to receive the support they need, but also a decentralized delivery.
A lot of the expertise in the UK’s cyber ecosystem has tended to congregate in London and the South East. We’ve taken it out to regional areas of the country, to bring it closer to the point of need. Which is to say closer to regional entrepreneurs who also have good ideas, but might not have the networks to leverage in order to progress those ideas.
Today, 52% of our companies have been based outside of London and the South East. 50% of companies that have come through the program have been female-led, and 43% have been BAME-led (Black and minority ethnic).
Don’t get me wrong – the sector is still behind where it needs to be. If we continue to deliver Cyber Runway as we hope to do, we’ll try to iterate how we do things and continue to engage underrepresented communities and build their requirements into our programming structure. It’ll continue to be something at the very core of what we do.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll delve deeper into the mechanics of this cyber-specific accelerator program – and how it’s driving innovation in the UK’s cyber sector.
28 November 2023
27 November 2023
27 November 2023