Launching and Building Companies

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Written by John Toon

Published in Research Horizons Summer 2014

When he enrolled as a Ph.D. student in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing five years ago, Vijay Balasubramaniyan never expected to become the CEO of one of Atlanta’s hottest young information security companies.

But, today, the phone call fingerprinting technique he developed provides the foundation for Pindrop Security, a three-year-old company that has attracted $12 million in investment from Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious venture capital firms. Pindrop counts top U.S. companies among its customers; these include two of the nation’s five largest banks.

From an office in Midtown, near Georgia Tech’s Technology Square, the company is building a business to help battle the multi-billion dollar problem of fraud committed using the telephone.

As Pindrop’s CEO, Balasubramaniyan handles duties that are vastly different from those of his Ph.D. days. He’s meeting with marketing and engineering staff, dashing off to customer meetings on the West Coast, and glancing at a large computer screen that monitors potentially fraudulent calls going into the call centers of Pindrop’s customers.

On March 27, 2014, Pindrop became one of three companies to graduate from the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), Georgia Tech’s startup incubator. ATDC was established 34 years ago to create technology jobs and economic growth for the state of Georgia.

The three graduate companies – Pindrop, MessageGears and SalesLoft – show ATDC’s technology diversity.

Pindrop Security: Flagging Fraudulent Calls

Each type of handset and each telephone network has its own unique audio characteristics. Caller ID can be spoofed to indicate that a request for a new credit card or wire transfer of money is coming from Atlanta. But if the call is really coming from a Skype phone in Nigeria, Pindrop Security can tell.

“We are trying to bring trust back to the telephone,” said Balasubramaniyan, who co-founded Pindrop in 2011. “We extract about 147 different features from the audio of the call. These features uniquely identify the phone as well as what type of device is making the call and where in the world that call is coming from. That allows us to differentiate what is a legitimate call and what is a fraudulent call.” 

Banks, financial institutions, retailers, and others now attempt to verify calls by asking for personal information: a caller’s hometown, mother’s maiden name, or high school attended. In the old days, this information was known only to the callers, but thanks to the Internet and services such as Facebook, such personal data can be readily available to fraudsters.

Large companies are fighting these fraudsters by capturing their voiceprints and maintaining lists of bad phone numbers. But those work only after the first fraudulent call and can be defeated if the fraudsters can alter their voices.

In the fall of 2010, at a major computer security conference, Balasubramaniyan presented the concept of “acoustic fingerprinting” phone calls. He was joined by Mustaque Ahamad, then director of the Georgia Tech Information Security Center, and Patrick Traynor, an associate professor in the Georgia Tech School of Computer Science. The presentation ignited a frenzy of media coverage, which attracted a flood of inquiries from banks and financial services companies.

Balasubramaniyan was then invited to present at a major financial services conference, which heightened the interest. “At that point, we knew we had a technology that could be commercialized,” he recalled.

Balasubramaniyan partnered with Paul Judge, a repeat entrepreneur who holds a Georgia Tech Ph.D., to co-found Pindrop. “Atlanta has good ideas and technical geniuses who deserve a global stage,” said Judge. “My focus is working to turn a good idea into a great company.”

Pindrop worked with Georgia Tech’s VentureLab program, which helps faculty members and research staff commercialize technology developed in research labs. It also got assistance with a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, which provided early funding to help develop the technology. More assistance came from the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), which offered seed funding, and Flashpoint, a Georgia Tech program that accelerates the growth of technology companies.

The success path led to ATDC, which helped connect Pindrop to a broad range of resources.

“ATDC has constantly helped us to be bigger than we actually are,” said Balasubramaniyan. “When you are dealing with really large banks, you want great conference rooms and office space. You want a great look and feel for when you bring customers to your offices. ATDC has helped significantly with that.”

Balasubramaniyan previously worked for several leading technology companies. At those companies, he helped build network management software and other commercially important applications following a clear solution map.

“When I came to Georgia Tech, I was working on purely hard problems, really difficult problems for which the solutions weren’t clear,” he said. “At Pindrop, we have this unique opportunity to work on problems that are not only hard, but also meaningful. To hear our customers talk about situations where we have protected somebody’s life savings or somebody’s retirement account, on a day-to-day basis, that is what makes this job really meaningful.”

MessageGears: Meeting Email Customization Challenges

Sophisticated companies carefully tailor their email marketing campaigns based on what they know about their customers. But the information needed to produce custom campaigns usually resides in databases behind secure firewalls, while the emails themselves must be sent from a "software-as-service" (SAS) system located outside the firewall.

MessageGears, another 2014 graduate of Georgia Tech’s ATDC, has developed a product that allows companies to have the best of both these worlds.

“The challenge for the kinds of customers we are selling to is that they have lots of data they need to use in the messages to personalize the messages,” said Dan Roy, CEO of the company. “What we have done with our technology is split the challenge in half. The delivery system is an SAS-based component, and we manage deliverability for our customers. But the software itself runs on premise and connects directly to our customers’ databases.”

Founded in 2010, the company now has about 50 customers, including such names as GEICO and Activision.

“We measure our success by our growth in message volume,” said Roy. “We are sending more than 100 million messages a month now, and our goal is to get to a billion messages by the end of next year.”

MessageGears connected to ATDC through friends who were familiar with the organization. Roy had worked for a Silicon Valley startup, so he had heard of the organization. But MessageGears was his first time as a CEO.

“This was new territory with me, and I just wanted to get immersed into a community of other entrepreneurs to learn the ropes,” he said. “Every entrepreneur has to think about funding and fundraising from the very beginning. We had some seed funding when we started the company, but we knew that was going to run out pretty quickly before we built a customer base and started getting revenue.”

ATDC helped explain fundraising and provided information that Roy and the company’s co-founders needed to interact with the investor community and consider their choices.

“It was very valuable to us, and I’m not even sure where we would be without the support of ATDC,”he added.“The formal ATDC organization is great, but just being in a community of other entrepreneurs, people who are in a similar situation to us, is very helpful.”

SalesLoft: Finding Prospects Using the Internet

Finding appropriate sales prospects can be one of a company’s greatest challenges. Manually searching the Internet is one way. SalesLoft is a better way, said Kyle Porter, the company’s CEO – and a Georgia Tech graduate.

“SalesLoft builds a platform that gives marketers, sales professionals, and prospectors the ability to build accurate and targeted lists of leads just using information on the Internet,” he explained. “Someone can come onto SalesLoft and say, ‘I want to talk with VPs of manufacturing in the Boston area with company sizes between 50 and 200 employees.’ Our software allows them to collect all that information on the Web, adds in a bunch of demographic fields, finds phone numbers and email addresses, then synchs to popular CRM systems.”

Porter and co-founder David Cummings started SalesLoft in late 2011. By 2012, SalesLoft was recognized as one of the top 10 most innovative companies in Georgia by the Technology Association of Georgia. In the last year, they’ve added 12,000 new users. 

Porter credits Rob Forman and Tim Dorr – also a Georgia Tech graduate – for building a great product.

SalesLoft’s path to the ATDC began with a delivery accident. In 2004, Porter had partnered on a real estate investment with Lloyd Solomon, then CEO of ATDC member company Quellan. One day, a package addressed to Quellan was accidentally delivered to Porter. While dropping the package off to Solomon at ATDC’s Centergy headquarters, Porter received a tour of the incubator and was bitten by the startup bug.

He took a job with a human resources company in the building and spent the next five years developing a network of CEOs, entrepreneurs, service providers, and investors.

“When we started SalesLoft in 2011, we immediately joined ATDC as a select member and have had a ton of value from the Industry Connect program,” Porter said. “We have been able to address a lot of our business challenges. For me as a first-time CEO, there were a lot of the things that I had never dealt with before, and these guys have been able to walk me through and help with those challenges. It has been awesome to have them almost like an extra founder on the team.”

ATDC: Building a Technology Ecosystem

“These three companies demonstrate the kind of diversity that we have in the ATDC,” said K.P. Reddy, an entrepreneur, author, and Georgia Tech graduate who served as the incubator’s interim general manager. “If you look at any ecosystem – and we are part of a larger technology ecosystem – diversity like this is what drives its health.”

ATDC assists companies spinning out of Georgia Tech, those headed up by Georgia Tech alumni, and companies that have no direct Georgia Tech connection. The common denominator is a fit with the ATDC program.

ATDC emphasizes coaching, support from a community of entrepreneurs, and connections to a broad range of resources. The companies receive access to Georgia Tech resources: students, faculty, and research facilities. Additionally, they can connect to industry giants such as AT&T, which recently located one of its Foundry product development centers in Technology Square to be close to the startup community there.

“We are not trying move the needle 5 percent or 10 percent,” Reddy explained. “We are trying to make orders of magnitude differences for startup companies. We are able to help companies do much more than they could on their own.”

Each of the 2014 graduates cites a different benefit from ATDC, which isn’t surprising, said Reddy.

“We are all about supporting entrepreneurs,” he explained. “It isn’t just about space. It isn’t just about coaching or mentoring. It isn’t just about investors or customers. We have all the things that an entrepreneur needs at ATDC.”

Among the newest programs are Industry Connect and Campus Connect. Industry Connect brings in representatives from Atlanta’s largest corporations to learn about startups that may have solutions to the challenges they face. In 2013, ATDC’s Industry Connect program facilitated more than 20 contracts between ATDC startups and Global 1000 companies.

Campus Connect helps ATDC companies leverage Georgia Tech resources, connecting them to one of the nation’s top 10 publicly supported universities, with a science and engineering research program that is among the largest in the United States.

“There is a lot of brain power and a lot of talent at Georgia Tech, and we are leveraging that,” said Reddy. “Being connected to a top university really makes a difference.”

And, the Georgia Tech connections extend beyond faculty and research assistance. A recent career fair held with the Georgia Tech College of Computing and School of Electrical and Computer Engineering attracted 150 students, who learned about opportunities at 25 startups. Internships and new hires will likely result, Reddy said.

ATDC companies tend to fall into two categories: those with high market risk and low technical risk – such as social media companies – and those with high technical risk and low market risk, including many of the science-based startups spinning out of Georgia Tech. Those two groups help one another, and build a robust ecosystem.

“Our scientists have to learn how to market, and our marketers have to learn about science,” Reddy noted. “That’s where the ecosystem gets really strong.”

Reddy believes ATDC has a great reputation, one that should make it top of mind for any technology entrepreneur in Georgia.

“If I’m looking for hash browns, I go to Waffle House,” he added. “If I’m going to start a company, I go to ATDC.” 



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