A Charlottesville startup is moving toward the frontlines of America’s cyber wars.
Mission Secure recently announced the closing of an $8 million Series A financing round led by Energy Innovation Capital and Chevron Technology Ventures. The company makes proprietary software and hardware to protect the control systems used by the energy, defense and transportation industries.
David Drescher, co-founder and CEO of Mission Secure, said the new investment by major players in the global energy industry “sends a signal that we are ‘for real’ in this business.”
Drescher said Mission Secure will use the funding to double its workforce, adding 25 employees at the company’s Charlottesville headquarters and its energy division in Houston.
While most cybersecurity companies worldwide focus on protecting email and IT for businesses, Mission Secure is among a much smaller number specializing in industrial systems.
“We are addressing a problem without a solution,” said Daniel Park, co-founder and chief technology officer at Mission Secure. “We have to create something new and pave our own way.”
“There will be winners and losers in this space,” Park added. “We are gambling on whether we, as a small company, will be the solution. But the problem is only going to get worse.”
Many attacks on industrial machinery or weapons systems target the sensors that monitor their physical environment. “Spoofing” these sensors — feeding them false data — can leave human operators oblivious to eminent disasters, such as an overflowing tank of petrochemicals or a hijacked drone.
By analyzing information within sensors, Mission Secure’s MSi Platform can detect an attack while it is in progress and recommend actions to stop it.
“Our on-site computers monitor everything that’s happening and block these threats,” Drescher said.
A 2013 executive order by then-President Barack Obama identified the growing cyber threat to America’s critical infrastructure as “one of the most serious national security challenges we must confront.” Since then, American oil refineries, hydroelectric dams and other utilities all have been targeted by foreign state-sponsored cyberattacks.
“The adversaries are getting better and more sophisticated,” Drescher said.
Drescher and Park previously founded Roam Secure, which provided emergency response communications and mass notification services to government and industry. They founded Mission Secure in 2014 with Edward Pernotto, the company’s vice president for defense.
Mission Secure uses technology invented by Barry Horowitz, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering & Applied Science. The UVa Licensing & Ventures Group holds the rights to this intellectual property.
The UVa LVG Seed Fund made an initial investment in Mission Secure in 2017 and also participated in the recent Series A round.
Bob Creeden, managing director of the seed fund, said he is pleased with Mission Secure’s performance thus far.
“Our support during this funding round alongside influential investors will further accelerate Mission Secure’s growth as a leading control system cybersecurity company,” Creeden said.
This year, UVa opened a new research center, the Link Lab, to provide ongoing support for research on cyber-physical systems.
Nicola Bezzo, an assistant engineering professor at UVa, is studying ways to make autonomous vehicles more resilient to cyber threats.
“Automation and cyber-physical systems are becoming really important in our society, but they are not always built with security in mind,” Bezzo said. “There is still time to improve the situation. But if we are not proactive, we may find that we were too late.”
The other firms participating in Mission Secure’s Series A round were R/GA Ventures, Macquarie Capital, Blue Bear Capital and the Charlottesville-based Felton Group LLC.