Big Data Big Opportunity

Ely Kahn: Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

Editor’s Note: Ely Kahn is the Co-founder and VP of Business Development for Sqrrl, a Big Data Startup. Previously, Ely served in a variety of positions in the Federal Government, including Director of Cybersecurity at the National Security Staff in White House, Deputy Chief of Staff at the National Protection Programs Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security, and Director of Risk Management and Strategic Innovation in the Transportation Security Administration. Before his service in the Federal Government, Ely was a management consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton. Ely has a BA from Harvard University and a MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Learn more about his Big Data Startup Sqrrl [here]

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Ely Kahn recently to gain insights about Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Ely, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled to have you at eTalks.

Ely: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Niaz: You’re a former management consultant and senior government official who turned Big Data Entrepreneur. At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us something about entrepreneurship? What is entrepreneurship? Why are you an entrepreneur?

Ely: While in government, I viewed myself as an “intrapreneur”, and I focused on developing new public sector programs that could disrupt traditional ways of doing business.  Moving to private sector entrepreneurship was a natural evolution for me.  Entrepreneurship takes all different forms, but the type of entrepreneurship that is most interesting to me is modeled around Clayton Christensen’s theory of “Disruptive Innovation.”

Niaz: You have a BA from Harvard University and a MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. You’ve served in a variety of positions in the Federal Government and before your service in the Federal Government; you were a management consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton. How have you transformed your career into entrepreneurship and why? What’s the most exciting thing about entrepreneurship to you?

Ely: Innovation has been a key theme in all my jobs so far and cuts across consulting, government, and startups.  However, business school was actually an incredibly valuable tool for making the transition from government to a technology startup.  More than anything, it was two years that allowed me to explore different startup ideas in a very low risk environment.

The most exciting thing about entrepreneurship for me is the continuous learning environment.  Every week it seems I am picking up something new across a wide variety of functional areas, including sales, marketing, business development, product management, and finance.

Niaz: You’re the Co-founder and VP of Business Development of Sqrrl, a Big Data company. How did the idea Sqrrl come up and how have you started?

Ely: Sqrrl’s technology has its roots in the National Security Agency (NSA) and that technology is called Accumulo.  Accumulo powers many of NSA’s analytic programs.  I was introduced to the NSA engineers that helped create Accumulo while I was in business school, and from there I started to put together the business plan and investor pitch to commercialize Accumulo.

Niaz: At this point, can you please kindly tell us a bit of funding? Who are the core investors at Sqrrl?

Ely: We have two world-class investors:  Atlas Venture and Matrix Partners.  We closed a $2M seed round with them in August 2012.

Niaz: So everything you are doing at Sqrrl is all about Big Data and Big Data Products. Can you please tell us what is Big Data?

Ely: Big Data is generally referred to as data that cannot be processed using traditional database technologies because of the volume, velocity, and variety of data.  Big Data typically includes tera- and petabytes of structured, semi-structured, and unstructured data, and examples are sensor data, social media, clickstreams, and log files.

Niaz: Why do you think Big Data is the next big opportunity for all of us?

Ely: Big Data technologies like Hadoop and Accumulo enable companies to analyze datasets that were previously too expensive or burdensome to process.  This analysis can become new forms of competitive advantage or can open up completely new lines of business.

Niaz: How do you define Big Data Product? Can you please give us some examples of Big Data products?

Ely: Big Data products span a wide range of technologies, including storage, databases, analytical tools, and visualization platforms.  Two classes of Big Data technologies that are of particular importance are Hadoop vendors and NoSQL database vendors.  Hadoop + NoSQL enable organizations to process petabytes of multi-structured data in real-time.

Niaz: How will Big Data products change the perception of building products?

Ely: Many Big Data products are still “crossing the chasm” from early adopters to mainstream users.  However, these products have the potential to bring the power of massive parallel computing to many companies.  Historically, these types of capabilities have been the domain of massive web companies like Google and Facebook or large government agencies like the NSA.

Niaz: Now can you please briefly tell us about Sqrrl?

Ely: Sqrrl is the provider of a Big Data platform that powers secure, real-time applications.  Our technology leverages both Apache Hadoop and Apache Accumulo, which are open source software technologies.

Niaz: What are your core products and who are the main customers of Sqrrl?

Ely: Our technology offering is called Sqrrl Enterprise and it enables organizations to securely bring their data together on a single platform and easily build real-time applications that leverage this data.  Some of the use cases for Sqrrl Enterprise include serving as the platform for applications that detect insider threats in financial services companies or serving as the platform for predictive medicine in healthcare companies.

Niaz: You’ve started at August 2012. How’s company doing now?

Ely: The company is doing great.  We now have about 20 employees and a number of customers in a variety of industries.

Niaz: What is your vision at Sqrrl?

Ely: Our vision is to enable organizations to “securely analyze everything.”  Our Big Data platform helps organizations perform analytics on massive amounts of data and often times this data has very strict privacy or security requirements on it.

Niaz: How big is Big Data industry?

Ely: According to the analyst firm Wikibon “the Big Data market is projected to reach $18.1 billion in 2013… [and] on pace to exceed $47 billion by 2017.”

Niaz: What do you think about the other Big Data startups? How’s Big Data community doing?

Ely: There is an amazing ecosystem of Big Data startups that are doing some amazingly innovative things.  I am paying particular close attention to startups focused on machine learning and data visualization, as these are complementary areas to our product.

Niaz: Well, we all know that starting a company is not an easy task for us. So, can you please put in the picture what are the difficulties of starting a company we may face?

Ely: The thing that is fascinating about doing a startup is that there is a never ending series of challenges:  raising funding, hiring, finding product-market fit, customer acquisition and retention, and the list goes on.  The key is to be continuously prioritizing where to spend your time.

Niaz: What have you learned by starting a company?

Ely: I have learned many things, but the lesson that I am continuously learning is to be resilient.  Startups are inevitably filled with small failures, but the key is to quickly learn from them to avoid any large failures.

Niaz: What are the mistakes an entrepreneur can make in the early stage?

Ely: I think the biggest mistake that an entrepreneur can make is being afraid to make mistakes.  Early stage entrepreneurs need to be continuously running experiments to find product-market fit.

Niaz: Can you please share some of your life lessons for our readers?

Ely: Stay humble.  Entrepreneurship requires both luck and skill, and I think people sometime mistake luck for skill.

Niaz: Thank you so much for joining us and sharing your invaluable ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you very good luck for the greater success of Sqrrl.

Ely: Many thanks.

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Further Reading:

1. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

2. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

3. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation