Elon Musk insider Branden Spikes launches new security firm in UK

After 15 years working for a succession of famous companies founded by Elon Musk, Branden Spikes is finally ready to discuss his own big idea.

It's called Spikes Security, is based in Silicon Valley but has decided to promote itself in the UK at an incredibly early stage in its cycle. By his own admission, the firm's product, AirGap, is barely ready to fly but he believes it is far enough ahead of the cycle that the concept on offer will still appeal.

What will get him in the door is only partly the security technology. The list of firms he has on his CV reads like a history of early 21st century tech pioneers, something that probably came easily for someone who hung around with Musk - PayPal, SpaceX (where he was employee number four) and finally some time with Tesla Motors.

Beyond this, the security technology behind AirGap is interesting if a bit complicated. According to Spikes, the biggest headache bar none for large organisations is the browser and its woeful lack of security. PCs are overloaded with security but the browser remains largely unprotected, an oversight given its status as the dominant application of the age.

His answer is to abandon conventional browsers altogether, replacing them with a 'viewer' on the PC that looks and behaves like a browser without actually being one. The real browser, based on WebKit/Chromium, sits on the AirGap appliance outside the firewall that runs each user session on an isolated virtual machine.

"Of all the applications that we run it is the browser that is the most strategically important and intrinsically dangerous," said Spikes. "It is very easy to trick people into clicking on things. It is designed to be a security nightmare.

"We are not detecting any malware, we are isolating the browser," chimes his colleague and chief marketing officer, Franklyn Jones, who previously worked for Bromium and Palo Alto.

Everything runs on the AirGap browser unless users try to access a specific web service that requires a conventional browser to function, in which case they get a message telling them to fire it up if it's on a whitelist.

The pair admit that in the current pre-release software this solution is clunky (not least for firewall managers) but promise to fix the handover and usability issues in the next release. They also claim it suffers from low latency, another possible objection.

The unusual note is that they remain confident in bringing such an early-stage technology to London let alone the market. They have been in the UK to finalise a reseller agreement with London-based Cloud Distribution.

"One might argue we are trying to do too much too soon," said Spikes, who believes that the Uk could give them useful traction. "The downside to the US is there is so much noise and it's hard to get attention."

This is an understatement - Silicon Valley has never seen so many security startups which probably means that 2015 is a boom time and entrepreneurs need to get on with funding their inventions before the cycle turns against them.

Funded three years ago in deep cover, thus far Spikes Security has raised just over $11 million (£7.2 million) from three VCs helped along by money from Spikes himself. He predicts a series B funding round next year.

A clue that Spikes might rise above the background noise is its list of early customers, including [cut-and-paste] the US Department of Homeland Security, Novartis, Boeing, Wells Fargo and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Adding a UK name to that list will help. By June, when the next version of the product is promised to appear, the world should know more.


John E Dunn

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