Datatribe founders
From left, DataTribe founders Mike Janke, Bob Ackerman and Steven Witt partner with emerging entrepreneurs from within the intelligence community and government laboratories to speed commercialization and decrease their risks.

It’s not exactly accurate to call Maple Lawn-based DataTribe an incubator. The word “accelerator” doesn’t do its model much justice, either.

“We’re like nothing else in the startup environment,” said Mike Janke, one of a trio of partners that launched DataTribe in July. “We’re what you might call a crucible.”

In its unique model, DataTribe’s in-house executives assume operating roles within firms that the company creates, bringing them from concept to product deployment, then preparing them for more traditional venture financing.

DataTribe also differs from traditional incubators in its focus on federal government agencies and research laboratories in the region, locating talent and ideas that are prime for commercialization.

“Our model was inspired by Team8 out of Israel,” Janke said, an operating company founded by former Intelligence Unit 8200 professionals who recruit talent in a similar manner to create technology startups. And like Team8, DataTribe’s primary focus is cybersecurity, big data and the intelligence community.

Common Tongue

Janke, a former member of the Navy’s Seal Team 6, is a serial entrepreneur and the founder and former CEO of Silent Circle, a Global Secure Communications service. He has also authored two books on leadership and founded Blue Pacific Studios, a Los Angeles film production firm.

“Mike and I connected when I started Onyara,” said DataTribe Co-Founder Steven Witt, a former CIA officer whose aforementioned startup company developed the open source Apache NiFi software and was acquired by Hortonworks in 2015. That $42 million deal served as the test bed for DataTribe’s operating model.

The third member of the group, Bob Ackerman, is the founder and managing director of Allegis Capital, the largest cybersecurity venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. He also founded technology companies UniSoft and InfoGear Technology Corp., which is the creator of the original iPhones.

After becoming acquainted with Janke five years ago, Ackerman raised concern concerning a disconnect between the coasts that hindered cooperation. “Essentially, nobody there can build startups [here] because nobody in Silicon Valley knows how to talk to entrepreneurs immersed in government culture,” Janke said.

That’s where Janke and Witt come in.

“Culture fit is super important, and trust is everything,” Witt said. “We know what it’s like to serve overseas in a war zone.”

The populations in each environment tend to differ as well, he said.

“The average age of an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley is 23 or 24, but here they’re typically in their early 30s,” Witt said. “They have spouses, children and roots. They’re basically in a different phase of their life, which is another reason we give them the white glove treatment.”

Fast Tracking

Backed by strategic partners Allegis Capital, Deloitte and Yahoo Japan, DataTribe has built a brain trust of 25 prominent experts from Silicon Valley to support the new startup studio.

“They vet prospective companies, invest in them and then serve as advisers and mentors as they start up,” Witt said. “With that model, we can provide a broad base of C-level talent that wants to give back to the startup community.”

Whereas the average seed round investment in the region amounts to approximately $270,000, DataTribe is capable of providing up to $1.5 million, topping even the Silicon Valley average of $1.1 million. It’s a significant jump-start that allows companies to ramp up quickly and focus on creating something tangible rather than spend precious time raising capital.

“We make it an unfair fight,” Janke said. “We can also fill out three-fourths of their A round funding before they leave the building. We’re de-risking the process, which is why we can only do four companies a year.”

Companies also exit with something even more tangible.

“We get them their very first contracts,” Janke said. “Because our investors are corporate investors, our companies can go to them to start trialing products, and the investors in turn become customers.”

DataTribe does not facilitate technology transfer, but rather intellectual property transfer, searching within government agencies and research laboratories for professionals whose experience and ideas can translate to commercial products.

For the moment, DataTribe’s marketing maintains a low intensity focus, including word of mouth, cold call introductions to government agencies, and sponsored meetups with guest speakers. Fireside chat speakers to date have included Tenable Network Security Founder Ron Gula.

Rapid Expansion

DataTribe’s initial portfolio includes three companies: Dragos, EnVeil and Kesala.

Dragos, composed of a team that emerged from Fort Meade, focuses on Industrial Control System Security for the electric power, oil and natural gas industries. Their software product hardens security systems by enabling detection and mitigation of hostile cyberactivity.

Kesala, established by intelligence community professionals, is developing lightweight hardware that avoids the vulnerabilities of software-based virtual private networks.

Another intelligence community breakaway, EnVeil, is developing a new security capability built around homomorphic encryption.

“It’s a way to keep data encrypted end to end and still allow outside users to query the data or run analyses,” Witt said. “It’s a significant breakthrough that prevents the compromises that can arise when data gets converted to a plain text format. The idea has been around for 20 years, but nobody has been able to figure it out until now.”

Since launching, DataTribe has already expanded to double its square footage and now has plans to take over an entire floor in a new building that’s under construction directly across the street.

Speaking at the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO)’s Entrepreneur Expo in November, Gula singled out DataTribe as part of the answer to the region’s growing need for a significant expansion of its incubator network.

“The mid-Atlantic region has a great history of working tough cyber problems, and this has created a strong community of entrepreneurs,” Gula said. “DataTribe has tapped into this community and will be accelerating many great ideas into great businesses in the very near future.”