The first time Cylance founder chief executive Stuart McClure travelled to Australia, as a 19-year-old, he had a near-death experience en-route that changed his outlook on life quite profoundly. He says he began seeing the world in a different way.
And he became sort of obsessed with the nature of preventable design-flaws.
Mr McClure had been a young passenger on United Airlines Flight 811 from Honolulu to Auckland in 1989, with a final destination in Sydney, when a baggage compartment door blew off the aircraft near the business class section, sucking nine people into the void at 23,000 feet and very nearly bringing the plane down.
This was a horrific incident. Air crash investigators later found two separate, but related, design problems had caused the catastrophic failure of the locking mechanism on the doors. These design problems were “utterly preventable,” Mr McClure says, and thus began what he says has been his own mission around finding “fixable” flaws before they become a massive problem.
Mr McClure is the founder and CEO of AI-based cybersecurity pioneer Cylance, a company he founded in 2012 and sold earlier this year to BlackBerry for US$1.4 billion (A$1.97 billion) in cash.
The acquisition stunned everyone, not least because much of the world did not realise BlackBerry was still around, much less as a player in cybersecurity. But Mr McClure says the combination of the two companies is powerful.
Cylance provides a growth engine of market-leading threat detection capability, while BlackBerry has quietly and dramatically transformed itself into a powerful cyber compliance-side platform. The addition of Cylance’ artificial intelligence tech capability has created something powerful.
“In summer last year, we were on track to an IPO,” Mr McClure says. “We had a pretty clear path. And then we were approached by BlackBerry.”
“At first, I think I had the same reaction as most other people … ‘Are they around?”
“But what [BlackBerry CEO] John Chen has been able to do in transforming that company from a near-death experience into a thriving business in cybersecurity is beyond impressive.”
Mr McClure is back in Australia on his first visit since the BlackBerry deal. He is still pressing the same Cylance message of artificial intelligence-based threat detection that the company pioneered. And he is bedding down his side of the acquisition.
This is not unfamiliar territory. Mr McClure has been involved in several acquisitions. His first venture-backed company, Foundstone was acquired in 2004 by McAfee, which was in turn acquired by chip giant Intel.
It is worth revisiting the Genesis story behind Cylance, as it ultimately describes the design philosophy that drives the Cylance business model.
The promise of the Intel acquisition of McAfee in 2011 was to embed security into the chip. It was a promise that both companies were struggling to deliver on.
Mr McClure was a McAfee executive in the post-acquisition environment and ultimately became frustrated at the technology direction and philosophical direction the company was taking.
“The way cybersecurity works – and there is no other way it works – is that you cannot prevent all cyber-attacks, you can only detect when one is successful and then respond as quickly as possible.
“It’s detect and respond. That’s how the entire industry is built.”
As Mr McClure got out into the world talking to McAfee/Intel customers, partners and investors, “they all wanted protection. We couldn’t deliver that, and we certainly couldn’t deliver it on a chip.”
“Because the very nature of detect and respond is that you have to know all the attacks before you can prevent them. It seems counter-intuitive, but that’s how it works – to stop the burglar, you have to know every way the burglar could ever get into your house and then put in measures to stop it.
And that’s not a realistic proposition. The cyber industry was ripe for disruption through AI. Mr McClure was banging his head against a wall internally. And so he jumped out of Intel in 2012, and founded Cylance.
“In the early days, we didn’t use the term AI, even though that is exactly what were doing,” he says. “We used the term ‘mathematics’. Because at the end of the day, what we are using is pure mathematics – just very advanced learning algorithms.”
From there Cylance started on a phenomenal growth trajectory. The company was less than two years old when it was brought in by the US Federal Government to assist with a shocking breach at the Office of Personnel Management, which was ultimately found to have had 22 million records of government employees stolen.
The incident became a massive validation for Cylance and its AI-based cybersecurity philosophy. The company immediately gathered US government customers and growth took off.
Mr McClure says the integration of Cylance threat detection AI with BlackBerry’s compliance platform technology will deliver a new degree of safety.
“In using AI to drive threat detection and AI to also deploy and build the compliance structure and framework, you now have an incredibly powerful predictive platform.”
“We have mission-alignment between the Cylance side of the team and the BlackBerry side of the team. And now its just an issue of executing and bringing the cultures together.”