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IT startup companies seek product advice from CIOs

A number of the companies participating in the MIT CIO conference's Innovation Showcase can point to CIOs as important sources of technology direction and product evolution.

CIOs aren't just new technology buyers, but technology influencers who help IT startup companies shape their p...

roducts.

That's the experience of a number of early stage companies participating in the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium's 2017 Innovation Showcase. The showcase highlights 10 young companies selected by a group of judges consisting of MIT faculty and students, entrepreneurs and early stage investors. Relationships between CIOs and the startup community can range from informal chats to more structured programs and can even involve tech matchmaking on the part of venture capital firms.

CIO input plays an important role at PreVeil, a cybersecurity startup based in Boston and Innovation Showcase participant. The company asked 50 CIOs for feedback when it was devising its end-to-end encryption technology approach. PreVeil sought to bring technology to market based on MIT research on technology for enabling computation on encrypted data.

Randy Battat, founder, president and CEO at PreVeil, said his company had some ideas on how to bring MIT's research to businesses, "but we really needed to talk to a lot of CIOs" to understand their requirements in a more nuanced way.

"People are always bombarding [CIOs] with pitches," added Sanjeev Verma, co-founder and chairman at PreVeil. "We were asking them for a bit of their feedback to help us shape the company."

We believe our best ideas bubble up from the customer base.
Amy Groden-Morrison vice president of marketing, Alpha Software

PreVeil's initial product, now in beta, encrypts email messages and attachments on a sender's device and decrypts them on a recipient's device. Encrypted email is stored on PreVeil's cloud server. Encryption is through a public/private key pair approach in which the public key is housed on the server and the private key is stored on the user's device. The company's next offering, which will enter beta in two to three months, takes this security method and applies it to file sync-and-share technology. CIO feedback helped influence this product.

Half the CIOs PreVeil polled said they blocked Dropbox, the popular file sync-and-share service, because they felt it wasn't secure, Battat noted. The other half of the group permitted users to tap Dropbox, but only reluctantly. CIOs, in general, faced pressure to permit Dropbox from users who liked the service's ease of use.

That insight shaped "a number of things we were doing in file sync and share," Battat said, noting that the goal is to make the technology "work like Dropbox, but add underlying security to it."

Partnering programs

Other IT startup companies are also seeking the council of CIOs. Fireglass, an Innovation Showcase company with offices in U.S., United Kingdom and Israel, offers a threat isolation platform that targets malware, phishing and ransomware. Guy Guzner, co-founder and CEO of Fireglass, said his company has a program for partnering with the CIOs and CISOs of Fortune 500 companies. Members of the partnering program are early security technology adopters.

"They benefit from early access to beta versions of our product and are able to provide input and help us to define future products and features," Guzner explained.

Bonsai, a startup and showcase participant based in Berkeley, Calif., also has a formal partnering program for working with CIOs. The company provides an AI platform that aims to mask the complexity of machine learning libraries such as TensorFlow. The product targets developers and data scientists who need to program and manage AI models.

Earlier this month, Bonsai launched its Early Access Program. Here, the CIO influence isn't necessarily in establishing new product directions but in identifying applications for the company's technology.

"We work with them to figure out specific use cases ... relevant to their businesses," said Dave Cahill, vice president of sales and marketing at Bonsai.

Siemens is among the first enterprises participating in the Early Access Program. Cahill said Siemens views AI as the way to drive increased automation.

In addition, Wasabi Technoloiges Inc., a cloud storage startup and showcase participant based in Boston, is assembling an advisory board, seeking participants "who have thoughts on the cloud storage market and how it can help them to achieve their IT objectives more effectively," said Jeff Flowers, CTO and cofounder at Wasabi. He said some of the company's early-stage customers are CIOs. Flowers said he also worked with CIOs as strategic advisors and partners in previous companies including cloud backup provider Carbonite, which he cofounded in 2005.

Taking heed

Alpha Software, based in Burlington, Mass., is also among the IT startup companies in the showcase that has taken CIO advice to heart. The company, which provides a mobile application development platform, didn't originally plan to offer the ability to create offline applications, but the CIOs it spoke with saw offline as an important feature, noted Amy Groden-Morrison, vice president of marketing at Alpha Software.

As a result, Alpha Software's platform now lets developers build offline-capable applications and offline forms to extend mobile business applications without massive additional time and cost, according to the company. The feature is particularly useful for companies with mobile technicians who need to work offline.

Alpha Software will gather additional insights from CIOs this October at the company's user conference in Rhode Island.

"We believe our best ideas bubble up from the customer base," Groden-Morrison said.

Next Steps

Gain insight into how to work with IT startup companies

Find out how CIOs are adopting startup culture

Learn about the channel marketing plans of early stage companies 

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