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Solving mobile cybersecurity problems, faster

With support from the Ralph O'Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship fund, Hopkins startup Fractal Tech promises to accelerate the security approval process for government apps
Posted May 10, 2017
(l-r) Whiting School junior Alex Sharata and alumnus J.R. Charles' startup, Fractal Tech, produces a (l-r) Whiting School junior Alex Sharata and alumnus J.R. Charles' startup, Fractal Tech, produces a "middleware" that's designed to protect mobile apps used in government communications.

J.R. Charles, Engr '16, and Alex Sharata, Engr '18, chose a perfect time to bring a product into the government cybersecurity market. Revelations of government hacking in the United States, France, and elsewhere make headlines nearly daily, training a spotlight on the measures these institutions take to secure their data and communications. The struggle to keep up, at least in the United States, is compounded by inefficiencies in the Information Assurance process, which determines the security requirements of applications and how they are evaluated. The current standards for mobile applications are time, labor, and paper intensive, and can delay the adoption of useful new technologies by months or even years.

Charles and Sharata have a solution. With support from the Ralph O'Connor Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Fund and Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, their company, Fractal Tech, is preparing to deploy it.

"Young entrepreneurs like Alex and J.R. are embracing security principles at the outset as opposed to five years ago, when security was an afterthought, a situation that led us to where we are today."
Dave Weinstein, A&S '10

Their product is a "middleware" that automatically builds security controls and functionality into mobile applications according to a given set of security standards. It provides standard implementations of security features, automates the integration of those features into the app, and keeps track of the process by which the application meets required security milestones — meaning developers don't need to reproduce hundreds of pages of documentation and thousands of lines of code for submission to Information Assurance review.

"Being able to develop a product that is centered on embedding security protocols in a technology is exciting," says Dave Weinstein, A&S '10, the first chief technology officer in the State of New Jersey’s history and one of Charles and Sharata's mentors. "Young entrepreneurs like Alex and J.R. are embracing security principles at the outset as opposed to five years ago, when security was an afterthought, a situation that led us to where we are today."

The O'Connor funding has helped Charles refine the various components of their security and accreditation technology and incorporate them into a single proof of concept the team can present to potential investors and customers. It's also enabled Sharata to further develop the business side of Fractal Tech.

"As we look to engage customers and strategic partners, there are associated costs of doing business — legal fees, business expenses, etc. — and we don't have to worry about financing those ourselves, thanks to the O'Connor Fund," Sharata says. "We can focus instead on meeting milestones, selling our product, and setting the long-term vision for our company."

One of Fractal Tech's initial markets, Charles and Sharata expect, will be contractors seeking to sell applications and security services to governments. But the commercial sector's requirements generally don't differ much, and that could open up a whole new potential market for the technology. First, though, Charles and Sharata are looking to get a foot in the cybersecurity industry's door. And that's where the O'Connor Fund has proven particularly useful.

"There's a vote of confidence that comes with any kind of financial award to a young business. I know when I talk to people about what we're doing, and I say we got an award from Johns Hopkins, they take us a lot more seriously," Charles says. "We're just starting out — Alex is still a junior, and I graduated just last year. A lot of people wouldn't take us seriously if it were just us talking. The vote of confidence from Hopkins, through the O'Connor Fund, has really made a difference."

To learn more about how you can support student entrepreneurs through Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, please contact Daniel Goetzel, director of innovation initiatives and corporate relations.