Professor founds Arxan Technologies to harden applications against cyber attacks
Who they are
A short time after the dot-com bubble burst in March of 2000, Purdue professor Mikhail Atallah and his graduate student Hoi Chang, as well as Professor John Rice, and Tim Korb, assistant head of the Computer Science Department, were knee-deep in developing an enterprise security solution meant to harden software applications against cyber attacks.
With little appetite for risk in the financial markets, it was a bad time to pursue a computer venture, and there were many technical and business challenges to overcome. Would their product be compatible with existing technologies? Could it be functional and affordable at the same time? For the computer research scientists, it was the classic "chicken and egg" problem: no venture capitalist would pledge funds to the initiative without first seeing an operable prototype, but such prototypes are tremendously expensive to create. The developers needed to prove feasibility, and they needed money to do so.
What they're doing
After disclosing their idea through the Purdue Research Foundation and its Office of Technology Commercialization, the developers received $100,000 from Purdue’s Trask Innovation Fund. Although disclosure is a requirement for intellectual property developed on the job by University employees, the team was appreciative of the resources Purdue makes available for advancing new enterprises, as well as the help with patent and licensing navigation. In fact, Atallah says the project wouldn’t have come to fruition without Purdue’s assistance.
Once the researchers had a working prototype, it wasn’t long before venture capitalists were ready to invest. Now — more than a decade after the company was founded — Arxan Technologies is an industry leader and protects the digital assets of top game publishers, media companies and Fortune 500 enterprises in financial, automotive and embedded computing markets.
How they got there
From the beginning, Atallah recognized the challenges involved in continuing his professorship at Purdue while running a business with University-owned patents. Rather than putting himself in a position where negotiations with his employer were inevitable, he and his co-founders hired experienced business professionals to run the show.
The company has expanded with offices in Bethesda, Md., and San Francisco, Calif., as well as West Lafayette. While intellectual curiosity — not money — was the motivating factor in his contribution to the technology, Atallah says the University has been more than fair throughout the process. With entrepreneurship, he says, it’s important to have reasonable expectations and understand that there’s a worthwhile price for success.
"Know what you don’t know. Just because you may be expert in one narrow area of technology doesn’t mean you possess all the particular skills to run a business successfully," Atallah says. "It’s important to understand your limits and bring in the pros to tackle areas outside your expertise."