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BUSINESS INSIDER: South Dakota startup looks to democratize cyber security

Editor’s note: Brookings, S.D.-based Query.AI is making waves in South Dakota. The company won the Company of the Year Award from the Brookings innovation Center in 2018 and placed second in the 2019 Governor’s Giant Vision Competition.

An important part of the company? Founder and CEO Dhiraj Sharan says it’s the relationship with area universities, where it builds on local talent and also works across the globe in India.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your business.

Query.AI is about democratizing cybersecurity. While AI is a long term solution, short term it needs to work alongside cybersecurity analysts to assist them. Query.AI's product does so by providing a virtualized AI-assistant to help with the cybersecurity monitoring coverage needed by enterprises.

Why did you decide to start Query.AI and how did it get off the ground?

I have been in the enterprise security monitoring space for about 18 years. More specifically, I was involved in the evolution of SIEM - Security Information and Event Management products. I realized that the challenges in enterprise environments having to deal with advanced threats, is becoming a scaling and staffing problem as well. There is a shortage of cybersecurity analysts and most companies are not able to provide adequate coverage to monitor their environment and/or proactively hunt for threats. I wanted to provide technology that can help capture and reproduce cybersecurity monitoring and hunting workflows. Being able to share workflows among peers and partners and collaborate over them, is another way we could help advance the mission. Targeting those goals, I got Query.AI off the ground with assistance from the Research Park in Brookings - our accelerator that helped with funding, state assistance, access to university research connections and student talent.

How did you end up in Brookings?

I have been in the Bay Area in the Silicon Valley for the last 15 years. And then my wife took an opportunity at South Dakota State University as a faculty member and we thought it would be a good change to move to the Midwest and raise kids here. The original idea (to begin the start up) was to start in California, but then I realized that if I move here, it's actually going to be beneficial in many ways.

One way is that the costs of doing business are much better in South Dakota. And I realized, after coming here that I can get easy access to talent here because we have South Dakota State University, and we have Dakota State University as well. So there are local universities in the region, who are producing good talent with computer science, data science and cybersecurity backgrounds. And yet there aren't that many high tech companies doing data science, AI or cyber security in this region. So we can tap into that talent and keep our costs low, and still build technology for the startup.

Why is it important to involve the students at South Dakota State and Dakota State and leverage that talent?

We need people with backgrounds in data science, backgrounds in cyber security and backgrounds in computer science. And here it's actually hard to find a lot of senior experience people with that kind of background. So, the approach we took is that, OK, let's form partnerships with universities and talk to the professors there. For example, we have our data science advisor who is a professor from math and stats department. We also have a senior team in Bangalore in India. So it is kind of a mix of a senior team, who is working with the more fresh talent that's coming out of the universities here and working together to build a product.

What do you find to be the biggest threat to cybersecurity right now and what will that look like in the future?

The biggest threat is that it's getting harder and harder to find threats, and the technologies that are available now are much more advanced. Earlier, it used to be that spam, email was a problem. But then spam was kind of solved with technology, now your email inbox is pretty good at detecting what is spam and what is not. But then after that, came spear phishing attack where the email may be very targeted to you, to your organization, and the splitters don't catch that kind of thing. 

So now, if you look at it, the next stage of attack it can be a deep fake cyber attack where you get a voice message from your boss, and you think it's your boss, but, you know, that can be completely generated voice, using a publicly known voice of that person. 

With technology with AI, attackers are also getting smarter and smarter. So we do have to use AI itself to counter those attacks as well. But so the problem statement, and even the solution, both sides, the complexity is increasing.

Your company has gotten a lot of state and local recognition. What does that mean to you?

We are here today because of the status that we got in the beginning. From governor's office of economic development, we got the Dakota Seed Fund, that helps us hire a student interns. Then we also got proof of concept funds, that helps us start a business. And then we also got the Governor's Giant Vision Award. Then at the research park, at South Dakota State University, we got an incubation environment. We got help from people like Dwaine Chapel, who runs the Research Park. And Tim Weelborg, who manages the angel funds through its Enterprise Institute. We were recently awarded Company of the Year Award at the Research Park as well.

All of that has been possible with all the support and help that we have got from all these organizations in the state. And I'm really thankful and amazed as well, that there was so much focus in helping and growing startups here.

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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