Spring 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Series: Mentis Technologies
Brian Abbe is the founder of Mentis Technologies, a Cyber Security company focused on preventing viruses and all forms of malware from infecting your computer through internet browsing, while at the same time, protecting your privacy. Mentis has developed Web Isolation Technology (WIT). This technology has been developed into a tool that works in the background of your browser and provides the protection you need from predatory websites and email phishing attacks.
What is your background in the tech/startup industry?
I started out with a degree in electrical engineering. My first tech job was at Lockheed Martin in Syracuse, New York, designing computer systems for radar and sonar signal processing. I eventually got my Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering, and then I moved into program management.
At one point, I managed a group of 40 engineers, but the company decided the group was too large for one manager, so we hired a new manager to oversee half of that engineering group. He was part of a semi-conductor startup on the West Coast that got bought out, so he came back to Syracuse where he grew up.
The new manager and I became good friends and after about four years of working together, we decided to start a nanotechnology company called Ephesus Technologies, which eventually became Ephesus Lighting. My business partner was the primary investor in the company. We designed clean energy products and worked with wind power. We also collaborated with a couple of universities to design super capacitors for electric vehicles, and looked at nanomaterials for thermoelectric couplers for heating and cooling devices.
What efforts did the Ephesus team make to grow and become profitable?
Even though we were working on many projects, money was going out. We were always investing in technologies, so we eventually realized that we needed to start doing something to productize. Because my cofounder was in the semi-conductor business previously, he had some connections in the industry, so we decided to make a more efficient LED bulb.
We partnered with a company that was using a diamond substrate to make LEDs. We made a few prototypes, but when we looked at the market, there were a lot of big companies trying to replace incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs. We couldn’t compete with them, so we decided to develop high-powered LED lighting. We eventually developed an LED lighting system that was good enough to light up the rink of a semi-pro hockey team in Syracuse.
A couple years after I left Ephesus Lighting to work at the Air Force Research Lab in Rome, New York, they started getting contracts for the Arizona Cardinals’ football field, Duke University, and the Minnesota Vikings, and were eventually bought out by Eaton Corporation.
Even though the company wasn’t successful at first, what startup experience did you gain at of Ephesus Lighting?
I learned a lot at that startup: how to set a manufacturing process, how to design a product from the ground up, and how to market a novel product. I have a lot of real-world experience building a startup.
What was your motivation for creating Mentis Technologies?
I’ve been working at the Air Force Research Lab for the last four years, and a major aspect of the work there involves cybersecurity. I came across this IP technology that was patented by one of the scientists at the lab. The technology isolates you from the Internet to avoid getting computer viruses on your local machine. I thought that was an amazing technology and had a real-world marketplace.
When I looked at the news, I saw how much cybersecurity had become a huge issue. It’s the virus that attacks you first, and then the hackers get in by placing that virus on your machine. I thought, “That’s the problem I want to solve”. No one else was trying to commercialize it, so I decided to build Mentis Technologies.
You mentioned that you work at the Air Force Research Lab. How have you been able to balance your role there and as a startup founder?
I would not have started the company if the Air Force hadn’t come out with the Entrepreneurial Opportunity Program (EOP). To apply for the program, I developed a business plan around Air Force technology. Then I presented it in front of a panel of local entrepreneurs and people from the Air Force. Once the panel approved the business plan, I went through a review and signature process. Finally, my director signed off on the plan and I was approved to be in the Entrepreneurial Opportunity Program.
I’m still an Air Force employee, but I have a full year to focus solely on building a business around the IP technology.
Where did the name “Mentis” come from?
Before I found the cybersecurity technology, I was working in the artificial intelligence group at the Air Force Lab. There were a couple guys there who were working on Bayesian statistics to predict future events. We were looking to apply the statistics to the healthcare industry to help doctors diagnose or evaluate the treatments they were giving patients. Based on how the patient responds, this technology could predict how well a treatment is working, what a patient’s life expectancy will be after the treatment ends, and if the treatment needs to be changed.
One of the guys said, “It’s almost like you’re augmenting human intelligence.” I thought, “That sounds pretty cool”, so I looked up the Latin word for intelligence and found out that it’s “mentis”.
How did you hear about the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
Working at AFRL, I heard a lot about technology transfer. The head of the Office of Technology Transfer helped to start the AFRL Commercialization Academy program.
Having a startup background, I jumped at the opportunity to get into technology transfer, because I thought I might be able to start a business with some of the technologies one day. The AFRL Commercialization Academy coupled with the EOP program created the perfect environment for me to build a startup.
What was your motivation for participating in the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
Besides the perfect circumstances, I had seen cohorts go through the academy with Wasabi Ventures. I was very impressed with TK Kuegler and the program the academy team put together.
The team even got the local community involved in setting up a fund to help incentivize the cohorts with small payments to reach certain milestones. Those small payments make a big difference because they allow founders to get a website, business cards, logo design…those things that people don’t really think about when starting a business but make a difference. I thought that aspect of the program was extremely rare and valuable.
And then, of course, the mentoring founders receive from Wasabi Ventures’ founders TK Kuegler and Chris Yeh, as well as Wasabi Ventures Academy Associate Dean Michele Pesula-Kuegler is great. The cohort also has periodic meetings so that each startup can hear about what the other startups are doing, what problems they’re running into, and other issues. Talking to people who have gone through building a startup or who have dealt with certain issues helps give me direction. So, besides the AFRL Commercialization Academy and EOP, I was motivated to join the academy because of Wasabi Ventures.
What are you looking forward to at the Spring 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day?
It’s an exciting event. It’s fun to get up there and talk to the crowd about what you’ve been doing. The energy just builds up. It’s good to see what your fellow cohort members are doing, and show people what you’ve done over the last few months. I hope to have a hardware prototype on display at the event to demonstrate our technology.
What kind of companies would you like to collaborate with?
Any companies from large grocery chains to nuclear energy corporations to payroll processing businesses. Every company has a cybersecurity issue, no matter what industry it’s in. I’m not looking at one field specifically. I’m trying to use the MVP/lean startup approach: show the prototype, demonstrate how it works, and get feedback from our potential customer base.
See how Mentis Technologies is bringing innovation to the cybersecurity industry. Meet them at the Spring 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day on Thursday, June 29, 2017. Then watch them pitch to compete for the chance to win either the Judges’ Vote of $15,000 or the live Audience Vote of $5,000 at Mohawk Valley Community College’s new campus at 1101 Floyd Avenue, in Rome, New York!