The Cyber Runway – a virtuous circle for cyber startups?
In Part 1 of this article, we spoke to Saj Huq, Chief Commercial Officer at Plexal, a company working with the UK government to help nurture cyber businesses from their idea stage all the way through growth to scaling, through a program known as the Cyber Runway. The program aims to help the UK achieve its goal of emerging as a pre-eminent “cyber-superpower” by increasing the number of successful cyber businesses at work in the country.
Towards the end of Part 1, Saj mentioned that the Cyber Runway was the first such cyber accelerator program to have diversity and equality built in as part of its remit – including program content that helped lower traditional barriers to participation. While we had him in the chair, we quizzed him a little on that claim.
Can you give us an example of some of the content that aims to lower barriers for underrepresented groups?
Tearing down the walls.
When we originally set up the program almost two years ago, we sought the advice of representative bodies or communities whom we wanted to actually engage with from an entrepreneurship perspective. So for example, we partnered with people who are focused on supporting entrepreneurship from a minority ethnic background, and from a female-founder background.
A good example is a business called SEIDEA that helps Asian and minority ethnic and black women get into cybersecurity and provides training for them to upskill into security. We engaged it as an advisor to help us design content and also provide us with an access point to a network in that community, so that we can actually reach in and advertise the opportunity to apply within that community.
We’ve also sought to think in terms of some of the structures that sometimes inhibit engagement, and reduce them. Previously, accelerators like the Cyber Runway have tended to be quite geographically focused. And that’s obviously good if you’re where the program is run, or can access those points. But if you can’t, then it’s not particularly helpful. We’ve designed this program to be virtual first, but with key in-person touchpoints as well, because we do believe in the power of bringing people physically together.
But a lot of the content, we’ve made available to be consumed in one’s own time or online, so it reduces those barriers. Though for example, if you’re trying to bring multiple networks of investors or mentors together, we do rely on in-person days, and we try and program them to be accessible around individuals – if an individual’s got childcare requirements, or they need to travel to one of those events.
We’ve also tried not to just do things in a big city location. So, for example, at the moment, we’re delivering several regional events in Wales, in Scotland, around the UK, you know, closer to core clusters of cybersecurity startups and SMEs, so that if our startups do need to travel somewhere, the travel distance is minimized.
And finally, we’ve built in content at each stage that is focused on how to build an inclusive culture in a business. So for example, how to address things such as unconscious bias, how to go about hiring in a more inclusive way, how to consider EDI (equality, diversity, and inclusion) aspects as a part of culture building, which is obviously a key part of an entrepreneur’s journey in terms of growing a business.
Cyber businesses fit for 21st century purpose.
That’s what success looks like for us. We’re not trying to just generate a bunch of companies that raise lots of money and deliver economic impact. We want them to make a purposeful impact in the world as well. And we want those companies to be successful role models, in that you can drive profit and purposeful economic growth, but also do it in a way that is inclusive and accessible to all.
So in a sense, you’re trying to create properly 21st century companies that are fit for purpose going forward in terms of inclusivity and access as well?
Well, exactly. We don’t want to just create good cyber businesses, we want to create good businesses overall, that, as you say, are fit for a modern world and that drive the values and principles that we think society needs to embody in order to succeed going forward.
Aside from all the geographically-spread events, we’re right in thinking there’s only one cohort per year for each of the three stages of the program, right? One each for Start, Grow, and Scale? Why is that? Some of the founders we spoke to that had gone through at least one stage of the program hoped it had a future when it could be run more frequently – wouldn’t that help towards the goal of growing the cyber industry faster?
More, more, more?
We’d love to do it more than once a year, but at the moment we have to work within the delivery constraints that come with working in partnership with government.
That means there’s a fixed structure which is easy to work within, and supports a certain number of companies on an annual basis. And the structure of that entails an annual cycle of cohorts. Something we started to think about going forward, in order to provide more of an “always-on”-type support service to the ecosystem, is really to leverage the power of the alumni community.
I mentioned that around 170 companies have gone through the program in the last couple of years. They join a network within Plexal of over 300 companies, and trying to bring those individual members of our alumni community together on a more frequent basis, agnostic of an individual program, is critical to unlocking that feeling within the ecosystem of receiving constant support.
The evolving ecosystem.
I actually think there’s a huge opportunity for that now, because of the maturity of the UK cyber ecosystem, and because of the various government interventions over the last couple of years. One of the challenges for any innovation ecosystem, regardless of the technology area, is to build that kind of virtuous circle, that creates and propagates, where your founders go through the process of starting their business, growing their business, scaling it and exiting it.
And then you get that recycling of knowledge, but also capital expertise, which then powers the next wave. It feels like we’re on that tipping point as far as the UK is concerned, because we’re starting to see in our alumni community founders from previous programs that we may have run three or four years ago, that have gone through the process.
One of the things that we’re starting to think of is how we can bring those mature experiences and those broad perspectives back to the program from a mentorship perspective to support companies who are about to embark on that same journey.
29 November 2023
28 November 2023
27 November 2023