Robert Rodriguez & SINET's Security Innovation

by Julie Anixter

Robert Rodriguez & SINET's Security InnovationWe like profiling innovators who are helping to give birth to new industries. I had the chance to talk to one of them yesterday – Robert Rodriguez, who served more than twenty-two years as a Special Agent with the United States Secret Service. He founded the Security Innovation NetworkTM (SINET) to advance innovation and enable global collaboration between the public and private sectors to defeat cyber security threats. Today, SINET is a multifaceted platform that serves as the catalyst that connects builders, buyers, researchers and investors in the cyber security domain. – Julie Anixter, Executive Editor

Julie: Robert, where is innovation investment needed most urgently?  The public conversation often revolves around infrastructure, education, economic development, healthcare, and technology.  Yet, tying together, and lurking underneath all of these vast industries is cyber.  And you and SINET are creating awareness that it’s there that we are most vulnerable and that’s why innovative collaboration between the private and public sectors is needed.

Robert: Yes. New models are needed to advance the security field. If there is one word to describe SINET, it is: connector.

Julie: One of the things that I find so interesting about your organization, having spent a little time around it, is how much of an ecosystem you have built and how you conceptualized SINET (the Security Innovation Network) as an ecosystem from the beginning.

Robert: It just made sense to be a catalyst and connect the ecosystem of the entrepreneur; venture capitalists, investment bankers, law firms, academics and the buyers; industry, government and the system integrators. Innovation in its most simplistic form is really about having awareness that it even exists, and we raise awareness between these disparate groups.

Julie: Robert,  you come out of the US Government.  You were an executive in the Secret Service. How and why did you start SINET?

Robert Rodriguez & SINET's Security Innovation

Robert: When I came out to Silicon Valley 12 years ago, I was tasked by the Director of the Secret Service to run the operations for Northern California and also create and build the first Electronic Crimes Task Force. This is really a public/private partnership that was mandated by congressional law… and a couple of things struck me.

Number one, I fell in love with the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley.  I saw an opportunity to make a difference and to build a community of interest and trust, centered around cyber-security as the theme.  At that time, private industry typically self-healed meaning if they had pain or issues they wouldn’t call the law enforcement community.  One of the main objectives of the Task Force was to build trust that would lead to information sharing, and could build and lead to investigations in collaboration with private industry.

Wells Fargo, Cisco, EBay, Visa, McKesson, Schwab—these are just some of the people that we met as a law enforcement entity and to this day, the Secret Service and I still continue with those relationships, and all are based on one word “trust.”  So we can see the power of one, right?  I mean, one, two people started this and now I think there’s probably 40 task forces around the world modeled after really that New York Task Force that Bob Weaver started in late 1990s.

Julie: It’s interesting that you say ‘the power of one’ because that’s exactly what I wanted to ask you next.  You left the Secret Service and immediately founded SINET.

Robert: Right.

Julie: And as one person who retired from a government job and an important job, you stepped immediately into an entrepreneurial role —  trying to bridge communities that hadn’t had a lot to do with each other, in a threat area that not a lot of people understand.  Where did you get the courage or ability to take the entrepreneurial risk?  Because I think a lot of people, especially people who have been in government for a long time, find that risky.

Robert: I completely rebooted and became an entrepreneur focused on giving entrepreneurs a voice.  But if I really examined myself and my career and even as a policeman before Secret Service, I was always an entrepreneur, I just didn’t know it! I think what happens when you work within a bureaucratic environment that’s very structured and doesn’t embrace risk or failure or exploration readily, you kind of are pushed into a lane and if you go outside that track, you sometimes get spanked back into it.  So it’s a more risk adverse, structured mission focused for a good reason.  Or, let’s take it to another extreme with the war fighter—there is no option for failure.  There’s mission readiness, mission assurance, a dependency on legacy systems, that drives risk adversity.

On the other side, if you took a picture of Google and laid it next to the Pentagon, where, for a good reason, there’s no option for failure.  Google embraces failure but in a ‘fail quick and move forward’ mode, and learn from it and adapt, and be innovative and take the risk.  You have two different cultures and so it’s interesting that my background comes from that structured government environment to now– almost the opposite where I evangelize the importance of: open innovation models, collaboration, reinvigoration of the public/private partnerships and encourage reevaluating risks differently to embrace change, lead change, and not being afraid of change.

Julie: When you talk about not being afraid of change,  I think there’s maybe a lot more change going on in cyber threats than most people know about.  I mean, can you, without scaring us half to death, paint a picture?  You’re obviously very focused on how serious the threat is, and how well the business community really understands it.

Robert: I think you have to frame it like this— if you think about homicide you see a dead body, a burglary you see broken glass, maybe there’s blood, but there’s an effect on the psyche of a person, the visual experience that can impact you.

But Cyber can be anonymous.  You can’t see the pain.  You wake up in the morning and your computer looks the same but it’s really not the same anymore.  So there’s a lack of awareness on the visual front, and then there’s also a lack of awareness on the threat. I am referring to the frequency and sophistication of attacks, the vulnerabilities to our systems as we continue to proliferate with mobile devices and applications, business process tools; everything from toasters to refrigerators to platforms and servers, and everything in between.  We become a world of innovation and technology, which is good right?  Innovation, in its most simplistic form, is to better society but with that can come a lot of risk.

It’s almost like the Oklahoma Land Rush or the Gold Rush.  It was the risk takers that saw the opportunity and went out to obtain the treasures. However, with that comes bears and bad guys right?

Julie: What are the implications for innovators?

Robert: There’s so much that needs to be done. Everything is really about shareholder value and dollars. Security is an afterthought because security is viewed as a cost center, or as a burden to the speed of the efficiency of overall business, and the outcome of capturing consumers and the competitive spirit of America.

So you can see that there are many factors here that play into this, including a general lack of awareness.  However, on the positive side, let’s talk about what’s happening on Capitol Hill—the 65 bills, at least.  I think five years ago there might have been less than 1/3 of that.  I’m disappointed frankly that the Cyber Security Act of 2012 did not pass and that’s another topic I can talk about later.  But the emergent acquisition market is the hottest out there in cyber.  The research and development dollars from the government are either a flat-line or up.  The budgets have not been cut in cyber at DOD or DHS and other entities within the government.  They’re either flat-line or plus up.  The war is winding down and the system integrators are building innovation centers and they’re actually exploring outside their neighborhood.  They’re partnering with the early state emerging companies.  In some cases they’ve made some acquisitions, which really aren’t things that they do a lot.  Also, the entrepreneurs, the early state emerging growth companies, are going to the Beltway.  They are exploring the government opportunity, and venture capitalists are encouraging this move. Where before they said, “Hey, that’s a sale cycle we can’t afford; stay away from the government.”  Private equity firms are now becoming involved.

Julie: So cyber security is really a true growth industry and a job creation engine?

Robert: Absolutely and let me just give you kind of an example of the opportunity in terms of the 18 critical infrastructures deemed by Department of Homeland Security: banking, finance, oil, gas, water transportation, etc.  They’re relatively stove-piped. Some go up and down in those stove-pipes but also go underneath as the underpinnings.  It’s one thing for Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to go down, that’s painful; but if energy, IT or telecom go down, it is catastrophic because of the dependency on that.

If you think about IT, telecom, energy –  more than ever –  all the infrastructures embedded in this now is cyber security.  Cyber security is essentially becoming a horizontal/vertical market which really increases the expansion of the need and the opportunity and therefore, the investment.

Julie: You’ve got an Innovation Summit in Chicago this Thursday.  What will go on there?  What kind of action happens in a summit like that?

Robert: If you think about SINET and what it represents, one word—it’s a connector.  The Summit connects the investors, the builders, the buyers, the researchers.  It connects communities.  We started off in Silicon Valley.  Stanford was strategically selected; it’s a center of innovation, entrepreneurialism.  The next one was in D.C.—the Beltway—and we brought innovation in terms of highlighting companies. You were there two years ago when we put innovation entrepreneurs onstage. At Stanford we put the government on stage.  We try to always bring uniqueness to a community.

A good example is the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Five years ago I was there with Doug Maughan  who is the Divison Director for DHS S&T Cyber and a big supporter and sponsor of our events. I was highly impressed with the intellectual capacity and the infrastructure and the history there: Marc Andreessen came out of there; Larry Ellison came out of there—and I felt the jets with the entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and investment bankers were flying over the cornfield.

Within 240 miles of Urbana-Champaign are some tremendous centers of excellence of academia.  I have seen this before when you bring the practitioner and the theory together to create centers of excellence in a collaboration on research, and there’s a missed opportunity.  So when I was talking to Doug Maughan we decided that we should bring the model to the Midwest. The message that we want to deliver is the importance of the collaboration between industry, government and academia, and leverage those great minds out there. It’s just a missed opportunity if we don’t take advantage of that.

Industry has hard problems, government has hard problems.  If you look at the history of the greatest public/private partnership in the history of America, the Manhattan Project and look at how we leveraged great minds, and industry was involved.  It was global in the sense that Canada and U.K. were part of it. If you look at the history of Silicon Valley, it was really built by the government. Stanford EE Department was funded by the government. primarily NSA and DOD, Frederick Terman the Father of Silicon Valley led that initiative.  In ‘58, Shockley and Fairchild semiconductor companies were born.  Sixty-five, semiconductor companies ensued after this birth, venture capital got involved in the early ‘60s and ‘70s.  Apple went public in ‘80.  In the late ‘70s policy got involved and capital gains tax was moved to 50%.  The Valley took off.

But if you think about Silicon Valley today, no one thinks of the government.  They don’t think of that bureaucratic entity.  They think of Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, etc.  So I think in Chicago, and I could be wrong, I’m not a native there, but it seems to me, just from my perspective that it depended on its legacy, industrial and manufacturing period that took them to where they are today.  They didn’t reboot and embrace the digital knowledge age the way that Silicon Valley, New York, Boston and Austin had done in the past, but Chicago has done a great job of ramping up fast with support of entrepreneurial programs within social media, digital etc.

The spirit and atmosphere that I feel and see when I’m in Chicago is powerful.

Julie: So what are you hoping will happen this week at the Cyber Security Innovation Summit?

Robert: A couple of  things. It’s a strategically designed group of people.  For example, the Head of Research for Department Defense, Dr. Stephen King, will be there.  The Head of Homeland Security, S&T for Cyber, Dr. Mann—Head of Research Development for Cyber will be there.  His boss, the Undersecretary of S&T at DHS, Dr. Tara O’Toole will be there.  Pat Mouio, one of the leading Heads of NSA’s Research for Cyber will be there.

Robert Rodriguez & SINET's Security Innovation

I’m hoping that they’ll meet some of the academics in the room and some of the people that are relevant to research and development at the cyber domain and that there’s a connect, and that maybe down the road there’s some funding on critical research. Maybe it’s just some of the corporations are in the room that are doing something that’s interesting to DHS or DOD or NSA, or some of the small business community leaders, the entrepreneurs are doing something that’s interesting to Pat at NSA.  That’s one thing.  That’s the collaboration that I’m there to evangelize. The importance of that message is to reinvigorate the public/private partnership model to lead change, to embrace change and not be afraid it, and to reevaluate risk. Hopefully there’s some valuable collaboration between those different groups.

The last part is that we’re going to be doing one-on-one speed dating, or private meetings, with representatives from the National Security Agency (NSA), Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), and The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the early stage emerging companies.  I’m hoping that they get invited back for further meetings; and maybe there’s some clearances that they are issues that product is purchased, or there’s some funding for whatever they’re working on.

Innovation in its most simplistic form is really just having basic awareness. I mean, where’s the Google boys in their apartment off University Avenue?  Where’s Hewlett Packard in 1939 working in that garage?  Where’s the next cyber security disruptive technology?  It could be around the corner, I don’t know.  But again, we’re a connector and we want to put that ecosystem of the entrepreneur in the room—your venture capitalist, the investment banker, the law firm, the academic, the entrepreneur, and the buyers, industry government and system integrators.

Julie: What is so interesting to me about the way you have built and operated SINET, is that you model your philosophy in the way you go into the marketplace.  There are probably a lot of books written about this and articles, but you are bringing people together – from many different disciplines and sectors; as you say, you’re putting people in the room, and I think it’s exemplary of what innovators do.  They try stuff, they iterate, they prototype and I see you doing that.  I’m excited to be there and I think it’s a really important platform for every industry to understand, not just because it’s a great source of growth and innovation, but because we need to grow and protect our security as a country.  It’s something civilians cannot take for granted.

Robert: Thank you, and it is a model and it’s a repeatable model. The formula has not changed.  The model has not changed since I came out to Silicon Valley 12 years ago.  It works, so I just keep repeating it.  This could be applied to healthcare; it could be applied to energy.  It’s a formula that has worked for us.

I want to end by stressing the importance of relationships towards the advancement of innovation and business. When I made that transition from the public to the private, relationships were paramount for me personally.  I had a lot of relationships and that was important; it gave me a cushion to take risk and leap out into the unknown, kind of like the Nike commercial ‘just do it’.  So it wasn’t like I just went out and I didn’t know anybody.  I was self-taught ROI, business culture.  I had to look up and read what venture capital meant.  When I moved out 12 years ago, I didn’t know anything; and I’m still learning.  I believe that if you are passionate about something everything falls into place.

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Julie Anixter is Chief Innovation Officer at Maga Design and the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She worked with Tom Peters for five years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the US Military and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference.

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  1. Excellent article! Nicely done interview!

    • Thanks VInce for commenting. Are there other interviews or topics you’d be as interested in?
      Let us know!

      Mari Anixter, Managing Editor, Innovation Excellence

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