The race to build the Silicon Valley of cybersecurity

March 25, 2015

Sara Sorcher

Massachusetts: Leveraging academic brainpower

Massachusetts is a hub for security research and academic study across its many universities, from Harvard and Worcester Polytechnic Institute to MIT, the third recipient of the Hewlett Foundation's $15 million cybersecurity grant. An academic powerhouse, Massachusetts is the natural home for analysts and thought leadership in cybersecurity. Like California, Boston has the benefit of being an existing venture capital hub. Over the last five years, Massachusetts consistently falls just below California in terms of VC investment in cybersecurity firms, with anywhere from around $100 to 300 million spent per year. And the city of Boston alone came in seventh in the top 10 cities for cybersecurity job postings, according to the Burning Glass report.

There had been little indication that the state will take on a role in coordinating an umbrella network for public and private cybersecurity business, à la Maryland, but that could change soon.

Launched in 2011, the Advanced Cyber Security Center is a nonprofit consortium of universities, local government, and industry. ACSC's membership spans financial services such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer Inc., and health insurance companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. And the ACSC wants to build a Center for Excellence. The vision: Graduate and post-doctoral students, supervised by faculty, would work with cybersecurity companies on research products aligned with industry interests. It would include a physical center likely in downtown Boston and virtual capabilities to enable multiple universities to join in.

Charlie Benway, ACSC’s director, says industry partners have already promised they would triple whatever the state contributes to the project. To launch, the project will likely need around $10 million. Kickstarting this plan earlier this month, computer security company RSA's Brian Fitzgerald presented a broader plan for government investment in cybersecurity to the new governor, Charlie Baker. ACSC hopes it will invest millions of dollars into cybersecurity like the previous Massachusetts administration invested in life sciences. 

“We certainly think we have the resources and capabilities to be one of those centers of gravity [in cybersecurity],” Benway says. “We think we are one of the centers of gravity. We do have the right mix of assets and resources to be a national leader in cybersecurity.”