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October 23, 2016 | Tom Ballard

Cybersecurity opportunity on display last week in Knoxville

Cyber securityBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Last Tuesday, one of those “best of the best” lists that we see almost daily on technology-focused websites popped-up. This one, however, captured our attention more than most articles because of its title: “7 Regional Hotbeds for Cybersecurity Innovation.”

We could not help but be struck by the irony of the publishing date – October 18. It appeared in the middle of a three-day period when a group of business and institutional leaders was showcasing a “what could be” vision for Knoxville that was focused on information and cybersecurity.

No, Knoxville and Oak Ridge were not on the hotbed list that highlighted activities underway in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and Washington, DC. However, if the local core group of cyber and information security professionals achieves its vision, Innovation Valley could be cited in future years.

For nearly a year, a fledgling committee, convened under the auspices of the East Tennessee Economic Council, has been exploring how best to capitalize on existing assets and fairly new ones to build an economic cluster around this pervasive global problem.

One of the key champions of the vision is Joe Gipson, Senior Operations Manager for Cisco Systems which has a 50-person team in West Knoxville. It is something he has been pursuing for more than five years. In this April 2015 article, Gipson summarized the opportunity succinctly: “We have assets here that others covet. We just need to connect the dots.”

Those dots include Oak Ridge National Laboratory with its world class information and cybersecurity research; the University of Tennessee that is a significant contributor in both research and education; Pellissippi State Community College that has just secured approval for a two-year Associates Degree program in cybersecurity; locally-based national firms like Sword & Shield Enterprise Security; major employers like Consolidated Nuclear Security, managing contractor for the Y-12 National Security Complex; and national players with a local presence like Cisco.

In the spirit of the “lead, follow or . . .” phrase, those organizations put the topic on center stage in downtown Knoxville for three days last week with the clear intent of elevating the community’s contribution to addressing the pervasive challenge.

A new member-based organization – the Cyber and Information Security Consortium (CISC) – held its second workshop on October 17 following its inaugural event in April. The next day, Sword & Shield hosted a two-day conference of its own – EDGE – that attracted about 350 people with some high-powered speakers such as Theresa Payton, a former Chief Information Officer at the White House.

And, in another of those ironies, the Chief Executive Officer of ObserveIT, a Boston-based cybersecurity firm, was one of the speakers at the EDGE conference. Michael McKee cited several factors in the success of his company which secured $20 million in funding from venture capital in 2013.

At the top of his list was having a big successful company in the sector that sees the big picture and is willing to be involved. While our region doesn’t have a company like RSA, which McKee cited, we clearly have those cited above that are committed to helping.

Right behind involved employers were academic institutions that provide the talent needed by established and new companies. We can check that box. Third was investors. No one would deny that this is an area where we have some work to do. Also high on McKee’s list were hotels, restaurants and innovation spaces.

“It all builds on itself,” he said.

The founders of CISC, which includes John McNeely of Sword & Shield, believe there is a real opportunity to capitalize on our assets in both the public and private sector. They outlined the opportunity last Monday and demonstrated the interest during the EDGE conference over the next two days.

What comes next? That depends on the region. Buying into the vision means getting off the sidelines and becoming engaged in building a cluster that might allow Knoxville and Oak Ridge to be on the cybersecurity hotbed list in the future. A good way to start is by joining the CISC. For information, click here. You can also read the CISC news release for additional information (cisc-press-release).

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