How These Student Founders are Revolutionizing Safety to Power Global Corporate Expansion
I spoke with Ben Salander and Mike Cipolla, co-founders of Verstaan, a Boston-based startup developing a physical threat forecasting and response platform they call “Atlas.”
Ben and Mike met at a boarding school in New Jersey. Without much to do in their rural surroundings, the two came together to create a virtual math and cryptography puzzle. What started out as a small hobby quickly went viral, with 100K unique visitors coming across and engaging their site.
Inspired by this initial success, Ben and Mike discovered the real need for cyber security, especially among small and medium businesses as well as individuals who have limited guidance in identifying and ameliorating potential risks. Thus, the two came together, along with Verstaan’s CTO, Justin Swirbul (UPenn 2020), to create a cyber security consultancy. However, the team soon found that it was difficult to persuade strangers of their technical prowess with words alone, and thus resolved to show their value add through actions. To solve this, the team adopted a unique value proposition: give us permission to hack your firm, and if we can’t do it, our services are completely free. The shock factor, both in the sheer ability of the young team and in the amount of highly confidential information they were able to access (and of course the exposed cyber risks and vulnerabilities), was sufficient to bring several businesses on board as customers.
Shortly after, as the team moved into their sophomore year of college (at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania), they sought to take their original consultancy model to the next level by building a broadly deployable and scalable product that could create a larger impact.
This process began with tons of cold outreach to better understand what would be needed in such a product, and how this new technology would fit into the broader ecosystem of existing systems and workflow. In this process, Ben and Mike found that what many see as the handicap of being a student (rather than a full time, mid-career professional) can actually be a benefit. Specifically, as a student, through alumni networks, university connections, and relatively more daily down time, the team was able to reach out to and in several key cases, get positive or otherwise helpful responses from leaders at relevant companies. “You’d be surprised what you get by just asking for it.”
In one of these correspondences with private security firms in Boston, the team received a response from Joshua Carruthers, a former UK Royal Marines 42 Commando, who would later team up with the two students to co-found Verstaan. After a series of meetings, Josh agreed to work with the small cyber security team on a penetration testing project, in which the joint cyber-kinetic security team digitally and physically compromised the systems of a critical infrastructure (power and water treatment stations) in New York. This involved physically entering secured areas and deploying raspberry pi devices with custom-made malware to demonstrate the damage a malicious actor could do to essential public infrastructure. Impressed with the team’s success and technical ability, Josh continued the relationship and moreover, provided a substantial amount of industry insight from his years in the special forces. Rather than continue rendering cyber-physical security services, however, Josh recognized the need for more robust threat intelligence for physical security staff. In particular, Josh recounted one time in which he saw members of a private security team caught in an IED explosion and killed — a tragedy caused by a lack of real-time information. If two or more firms face similar risk profiles in a given region, the team reasoned, these companies can best defend themselves by sharing information with one another, and by drawing insights from this centralized pool of threat intelligence. Thus began their resolve to solve this immensely impactful challenge through Verstaan, with a platform they call Atlas: an inter-company threat tracking tool that allows users to command, control and forecast risks to their assets in dangerous places.
Initially, Verstaan focused on overseas clients, starting with Honduras, as they felt the technological innovation would be felt most (and is currently most lacking) in developing countries. Verstaan worked with limited US diplomatic assistance and primarily through local Honduran partners (as value added re-sellers of their product) to help bring increased physical security to the country. Ben and Mike traveled to the country to meet with cabinet-level defense officials and several senior members of the Honduran National Police, and these early meetings heavily influenced Verstaan’s evolution.
Ben and Mike recall feeling intimidated during meetings (in the early days of building Verstaan) with incredibly senior people with decades of experience and accolades in their respective fields. But over time, through increased exposure and delivery on their contracts, the team quickly realized their unique value add and became more accustomed to being the youngest people in the room, regularly providing a fresh perspective and deeper understanding of cutting edge technology.
Through end user interaction, Verstaan developed a deep understanding of the product road map and iterated to identify the best path to achieve their vision. They developed a greater appreciation for security as a global issue, not one solely plaguing select countries. Moreover, they quickly understood the difficulty of taking an overseas first approach: the vastly different cultures, environments, and regulations were incredibly challenging to navigate without on the ground partners integrated in these communities. Thus, they began working first with American and European firms with operations in developing areas, thereby leveraging the existing infrastructure and partnerships at these firms to more effectively deploy their technology.
Verstaan’s long term vision is to create a full service, end to end, holistic security platform to protect a company’s security staff, employees, and assets as they enter, navigate, and grow in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environments. The team aims to create an incredibly accessible platform available to anyone anywhere through their employer. In this way, Verstaan solves a major a life threatening barrier to enable greater global connectivity and collaboration.