Building businesses in the UK cyber sector

Success in the cyber industry is now taxiing on Runway 1...
16 October 2023

Get some lift – get on the Runway. (Image generated by AI).

• Building businesses in cyber can be harder than it seems.
• The UK Cyber Runway helps companies building businesses in cyber to advance and accelerate.
• The cohort structure gives founders fellow travelers to take through business issues with.

Building businesses in the UK cyber sector is tougher than it first appears. That’s why the UK government backs a program from Plexal called the Cyber Runway, to incentivize, guide, and smooth the pathway of UK cyber enterprises across the sector.

In 2022, we spoke to a handful of women who had joined the Cyber Runway to get a handle on what the program offered them – particularly in terms of support for diversify the cyber sector.

In 2023, we sat down with a cast of, if not thousands, at least significantly more founders in the UK cyber sector to see how the Cyber Runway was helping them in the process of building their businesses.

We met with:

Emma Humphrey – CEO of secure cloud specialist Kuro

George Dunlop – Co-founder and director of partnerships at Quantum Dice 

Jonathan Wood – CEO and founder of security and compliance company C2 Cyber   

Lorna Armitage – Co-founder of cybersecurity education organisation at CAPSLOCK 

Mayur Upadhyaya – CEO and co-founder of API security company Contxt, and   

Shelley Langan-Newton – CEO of identity verification platform SQR


How aware of the Cyber Runway program were any and all of you before you decided to get on it, and what led you to think it was a thing you wanted to try out?


We at Contxt had participated in another program, the cybercrime program, by Plexal, the company that actually delivers the Cyber Runway, and I went to one of the pitching events at Lancaster University, got talking with a couple of the founders while we were waiting for a train, and they told me they were on the Scale program, and how much value they were getting from it, both in terms of it helping them with their training, and how they could scale their business. And I thought “Okay, that sounds perfect for where we are in our journey.”

Finding the time for building businesses.


Yeah, it’s a similar story for us too. We did LORCA a few years ago, and we did the Grow stream of the Cyber Runway too at some point. So we were really familiar with the organization and the people. We got some fantastic support, connections and resources when we did the previous ones, so it just felt like the right time for me and the business to look at the Ignite program, because we’re at quite a pivotal time where we’re looking at scaling and growing and building the business.

Plexal helps cyber companies build their businesses.

The Cyber Runway in action.


What sort of things about it made it the right time for you?


Having a team who can pick up some of the responsibility, which meant I had a little bit more time to be able to dedicate to this. These are things that you really need to concentrate and focus on. So now that we’ve got a good team built around me, I could dedicate time to this now.


We had the opposite experience, in that we were not aware of Plexal and what they were doing, which was a real shame, because they have a site just around the corner from us. We applied for something else that Plexal were running, and they proactively reached out to us.

I think that’s the really positive thing about Plexal. It is proactively searching for people who could benefit from building their businesses, rather than just waiting for you to apply.


So it’s fair to say you all had different pathways into the program. That leads us to the obvious question: how has it been for you? How has your experience on the Runway been, compared to any other accelerators you’ve been on? What sort of things have you particularly taken away from it?


I haven’t actually done any before, so I was coming into this with completely open eyes and probably an open heart as well, but I’m absolutely blown away. I thought, “Oh, great – free coaching. But actually, it’s coaching, mentoring, the support of this group, which is totally inspiring in all different ways. So, big thumbs-up so far – I’m almost sad that we’re two months down. I want this to carry on for longer!

Building businesses together.

Many hands make for better cyber businesses. (Image generated by AI).


I think for me, the really nice surprise was how quickly we all clicked as a cohort. The in-person events are a great way for us all to come together. And it’s great to have a space where you can chat through this with other very different businesses, because you realize that you’re all facing very similar challenges.

Similar pressures but also, different stresses that we can chat through together because someone might already have been where we are and be able to advise on how they dealt with a situation.

We’ve done two workshops so far, and they’ve been great, but the cohort support has been especially fantastic, with the way we’ve all gelled.

An unusual accelerator.


Yeah, I’ve done a few accelerators before, and this this doesn’t feel necessarily like anything I’ve tried. We’ve created this accountability group between us and we can all share, help each other, mirror each other – that’s been great.

This is very specific in the sense that there are things that we can tell each other that we can’t tell our spouses or some of our co-founders. It’s just great to have that support, especially when I think we’re all going through quite transitional times in our businesses. So that’s been that’s been truly wonderful.


Has there been anything that you expected or especially wanted to have on the Runway that hasn’t been there?

All Founders:

*Gaze around in incomprehension.*


Allllrighty then, moving on…


I think you’ve got a response there that’s come from a space of continuous feedback. It’s been wonderful to be able to have two-way engagement throughout the cohorts, which means the response has been overwhelmingly positive.


That’s been the way of things? You’ve been able to raise things as you’ve gone along, and they’ve been addressed?

Building businesses depends on honest feedback.

Feedback is crucial to delivering safe spaces.


Yeah, absolutely.


Some of you have mentioned the way that you guys have clicked and become a group as a really positive outcome of the Runway structure. Is that unusual? And is it something you’d like the rest of your teams to experience? Is it something you think would help in terms of building your businesses?


Certainly, yes. The Plexal team feel like family now, they’ve created this really safe space where you’re encouraged to join in. And there’s an art, I think, in how we were all chosen to be in a cohort. That combination of safe space and good choices of cohort-members, that’s very well thought-out, and I think it’d be helpful for more of the team to have that understanding that I’ve got from this experience.

A community of equals.


That camaraderie that’s been mentioned – is that unusual too, as founders of companies? Because you’re usually up at the top of the structure, so you can’t really necessarily vent and talk is – is finding that community unusual for you?


Yeah, I would definitely say that. When you’re growing a business, your primary concern is the business and the other people within it. You don’t spend much time of your day, week or month thinking, “How do I need to grow and adapt? And how am I doing in this situation?”

It’s really good to have the cohort where you’re not expected to have all the answers. In fact, the cohort is there to rally around you. And it does benefit our team, just to back up what Shelley was saying, because although our teams aren’t here, we’re coming back into our own businesses with better tools, more of a network, more of an understanding and more foresight as to what’s going to come next.

And therefore our team say it’s been hugely positive for them, too.

In the next handful of parts of this article, we’ll take time for a sit-down with each of the founders in turn, to explore their own emerging cyber-business, and how they’re building those businesses.