RSA Conference Program Chairman Hugh Thompson has always had a sense of the dramatic, and he had no problem pulling out the hyperbole to kick off the inaugural Launch Pad event at the RSA Conference in San Francisco Tuesday.
As he introduced the session, in which three early stage entrepreneurs deliver a five-minute elevator pitch to a panel of venture capitalists and then get feedback, Thompson didn't hold back.
"To my knowledge, nothing like this has been attempted in the history of the universe," he proclaimed.
One thing's certain: It hadn't ever been attempted at the RSA Conference, but judging from the results, it seems destined to be back again next year. (A second Launch Pad will be held the RSA Conference in Singapore later this year.)
If the Launch Pad sounds a little like the Innovation Sandbox competition that has kicked off the RSA Conference for years, that's somewhat intentional. Similar to the Innovation Sandbox, the idea of the Launch Pad is to give cyber security entrepreneurs a chance to take their companies to the next level.
But there are important distinctions: First, Launch Pad is not a competition. No one is declared the winner. The participating companies are also younger—no more than two years old, and with no commercial product on the market.
That's not to say that the entrepreneurs don't need to have a very clear value proposition and an early track record of pre-commercial successes in the form of proofs-of-concept. And while there is no winner, make no mistake: the VCs were asked whether they'd be interested in finding out more, and getting a "no" certainly couldn't have felt like a win.
That said, no one went home disappointed, and each of the entrepreneurs left with some valuable insight into how they could eventually secure a big investment.
The first participant was Ethan Landow, head of strategy and operations for NuID, which has developed a solution for securely storing and protecting password data. Landow had the enviable task of essentially pitching without a net, having not seen how the format would even work.
When he finished explaining how NuID was applying the cryptographic concept of zero-knowledge proofs, allowing users to prove that they know a password without actually sharing or transmitting what that password is, Landow then became the first to face the Launch Pad gauntlet.
None of the three panelists seemed eager to find out more, but one — Ted Schlein, general partner at Kleiner Perkins — said that he had a competitive venture in his portfolio, and that he'd want to know more if Landow researched that company and still felt confident in NuID's prospects.
Teresia Gouw, founding partner at Aspect Ventures, said she wanted to hear more about where the solution sits in the stack, how the zero-knowledge proofs are stored, and how the proofs of concept had played out. Enrique Salem, managing director at Bain Capital Partners, added that Gouw needed to better articulate how NuID would differentiate itself in a noisy market.
Next up was Jack Hopkins, CTO of Spherical Defense, which is applying deep learning to classify application traffic in an effort to ramp up visibility and bring down security-related maintenance costs.
Hopkins got a leg up on Landow by offering that his company had three proofs of concept under way, and that it was looking for more opportunities to grow that number.
As a result, he fared a bit better, with Salem and Gouw wanting to know more, while Schlein said he felt like it was too crowded of a space for Kleiner Perkins to pursue anything.
Last up was Bill Mann, CEO of Styra, which has developed technology that brings security policies and practices to Kubernetes environments, a frequent blind spot for companies employing container strategies.
"We provide a very simple product that gives the ability to put guardrails around users of Kubernetes," said Mann. "We don't get in the way."
Again, Schlein was the outlier on the VC panel, describing Styra as too narrow of an opportunity for him to continue the conversation. Gouw, however, found Styra's value proposition compelling, especially if it's extensible. Salem, meanwhile, was even more enthusiastic about the opportunity he sees for two or three companies to offer meaningful solutions to the problem.
"No one is doing anything (about security) in Kubernetes," Salem said.
In the end, clearly impressed with both the quality of presentations and the honesty of the VC panelists, Thompson closed with another bit of hyperbole, inviting the audience to take note of the fact that they were at the inaugural Launch Pad, and that they'd be able to tell their grandchildren about it.
Even though Thompson himself was clearly aware of the apparent absurdity of this, many in the room were probably having the same thought: If any of the presenters becomes a future tech giant, it might actually prove to be a story well worth telling.