CyberASAP Alumni Insights: “Find companies or individuals that you aspire to and try to emulate them”
“Find 15-20 companies or individuals that you aspire to…..and try to emulate them”. That’s the advice to would-be startups from Ivo Sluganovic, CyberASAP Alumnus and co-founder of PhishAR.
Tell us a little bit about how your commercialisation journey started?
I had already had experience of creating a startup before doing my PhD or postdoc so the idea of starting a company was something that was close to me and that interested me.
My postdoc research was within systems security and I was looking at Augmented Reality (AR). We started to realise the huge impact that AR, and the changing ways in which people would use their devices, could have on security. And we also realised that some of the things we were working on were potentially patentable.
We talked to the university who were keen to support us; so we started crafting a project to commercialise my research. A few months after this, when we were looking to commercialise, CyberASAP came to us “like a gift” – it was exactly what we needed. We knew we had a unique technology but we didn’t know how to commercialise it.
How did you go about progressing your idea?
As with so many successful ventures, luck plays a part. We were fortunate to have Mastercard as one of our research partners in the lab at Oxford and, during CyberASAP, we showed them what we were doing. They could really see its potential and wanted to support us, suggesting it might be easier to do that if we spun out. They also invited us to join their Accelerator.
This happened just before the CyberASAP Demo Day which was great timing. A month after Demo Day we had a few lead investor offers; we picked one and were ready to close the investment round when Covid hit.
What stage is the company at now?
Covid held things up but we got started properly in September 2020. We now have a superb team and collaborators all over the world. One year on, we have quite a lot of very cool tech: our app, Lokot, provides the smartest 2 factor authentication on the market (excluding hardware tokens) and to date we have focused on smartphones.
What lies ahead for PhishAR?
Our unique expertise lies in really understanding screens and, through that, creating technology that enables one device to look at another. It’s a bit like we provide an expert to sit on your shoulder. This isn’t just in order to prevent phishing attacks – it has wider applications beyond security. Our original goal was to focus on what we do best – analysis of screens. And our expertise in computer vision and the AR space means we can now focus on that too.
As a company our long term vision is to build these expert systems for a wider range of devices and applications. We’ll be doing it for smart / AR glasses next. And, with our ability to make things more immersive, we see opportunities in training, productivity, and collaborative working. We want to extend the reach of our core technology and we see plenty of scope for this.
And the challenges of creating a company, building a team?
For me, a start-up is about three things:
- The Product/Technology
- The Market
- The People
The third, finding the right people, is absolutely critical and can be a big challenge. So we decided to get someone on the team whose focus was recruitment. This was really important as the roles we are recruiting for are specialist roles and in hot areas like AI. Also, as a small company, the fit needs to be absolutely right. So we’re pleased that we decided to get an experienced recruiter on board – this approach has been really effective and I’d advise anyone in a similar position to do likewise. As for the other two: we know we have unique technology, and we are rapidly exploring multiple go-to-market routes to determine which can scale the best.
Thinking about CyberASAP, what did you value most about it?
- The opportunity to have “legitimate” time to dedicate to your project. The programme made it clear that this was not something you just do on the side
- Breadth of education – the programme content covered key areas and exposed us to a wide variety of challenges. And although there are new learnings and approaches coming all the time, the really important thing is understanding the complexity of the commercial world; learning the language.
- What I also really like about the programme is not just the immediate outcomes but how what people learn on the programme might bear fruit in 5 or 10 years – so the impact for the wider UK economy is much broader and longer-term.
- The Meet the Entrepreneur and Meet the Investor days were invaluable – a great chance to get feedback from people who are actually doing this or have done this previously, some multiple times. It made the whole journey ahead of us feel much more tangible.
- The programme requires you to go out and talk to people – this is such a good way to get a better understanding of what the market actually wants. It’s very easy when you’re in academia to think that you’re doing really smart things and you’re ahead of the curve. But the reality isn’t always like that. And what you quickly understand is that in the commercial world, just having smart tech isn’t enough…..it needs to fulfil a market need.
What advice would you give fellow academics/would-be start ups?
- Try finding people who have been through a similar experience; see if you can get 15-20 mins of their time to learn from them, appreciating that there is much complexity and that you want to learn.
- Have 15-20 companies or individuals you aspire to be – look at what they’ve done and try to emulate them.
CyberASAP is funded by the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and delivered by Innovate UK KTN and Innovate UK in partnership. Now entering its sixth year, the programme has seen 116 academic teams from all over the UK participate, and 57 graduate (the programme is selective throughout). Alumni have between them raised more than £17m in further funding to progress their cyber innovations. More about the programme’s impact is here.