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National Cybersecurity Center opens for business in Colorado Springs

January 20, 2018 Updated: January 22, 2018 at 1:04 pm
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Hannah Parsons, Exponential Impact CEO, Vance Brown, National Cybersecurity Center CEO, and John Bolin, Chief marketing officer for Exponential Impact, from left to right, pose for a portrait at their new building on Thursday January 18, 2018 in Colorado Springs. The National Cybersecurity Center and Exponential Impact cybersecurity accelerator are there to help cybersecurity, blockchain, and artificial intelligence startups grow in June. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

Two years after Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled a vision in his State of the State address to build a cybersecurity center in Colorado Springs, the dream became a reality Monday in a former satellite plant on North Nevada Avenue.

Hickenlooper's dream, however, came in a different form than the second-term executive first envisioned.

"As we see it, this center can be the country's foremost authority on cybersecurity research and development, training and education," Hickenlooper said in his Jan. 14, 2016, speech. He outlined an organization with a staff of about 100 that would help businesses, nonprofits and government agencies combat and recover from cyberattacks, teach public officials about cybersecurity and threats to their computer networks and conduct research into cybersecurity threats.

Four months later, he signed legislation allocating $7.93 million to renovate the plant for the National Cybersecurity Center.

The center that moved from temporary offices near the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to the former satellite plant now owned by UCCS at 3650 N. Nevada Ave. is different from what Hickenlooper envisioned. It has just four employees, won't be helping businesses, nonprofits and government agencies recover from cyberattacks and likely will share space with an accelerator program designed to help cybersecurity businesses grow. Since taking over in August as the center's interim CEO, Vance Brown has been remaking the nonprofit as a self-supporting think tank for online security.

Hickenlooper, along with Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and former UCCS Chancellor Pamela Shockley-Zalaback, who helped the governor start the cybersecurity center, said the center has lived up to their vision despite the changes in focus Brown has made.

"When you start something from scratch, it never comes out how you envision it. It has potential and beyond. It will have even more impact to the security of the country than I initially thought. Colorado Springs has embraced the concept," Hickenlooper said at the center's symposium. Suthers said despite the changes, the center is "where I wanted to be at this point in time." Shockley-Zalaback said she is "very satisfied with our progress in fulfilling our vision. It is strong and solid. We are not there yet; there is still a lot of work to be done."

UCCS plans to move its cybersecurity degree and contract with businesses to offer short-term specialized training programs that lead to certification for cybersecurity professionals to the center this year, but the details are still to be determined under a partnership the school has formed with computer networking giant Cisco Systems.

Martin Wood, a UCCS vice chancellor who is leading the school's cyber initiatives, said the building also will be a hub for cybersecurity workforce training programs for 14 colleges and universities in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

"Cisco is bringing teams from Denver and San Jose (Calif.), into Colorado Springs by the end of January to help us plan and build out the space where UCCS can lead the (cybersecurity) workforce development effort," Wood said.

"They will plan, design and determine the cost (of the project) in conjunction with the National Cybersecurity Center. We will both need labs, meeting rooms and classroom space, so we will work together to plan out that space. For the next several years, we will focus on building out the north end, then move to the south end."

Curriculum for the workforce development effort is still being planned, but Wood said the classes and training sessions will be offered in a mix of classroom and online sessions and also will include a program to train police, firefighters and other first responders how to respond to computer hacking and other cyberattacks.

Much of the space dedicated to workforce development, startup growth and cybersecurity research will be housed in the building's north end, which was renovated by the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs and opened in 2011 as the Freedom Financial Services Expo Center, later renamed Mortgage Solutions Financial Expo Center. The National Cybersecurity Center offices were built in a small part of the building's south end, but much of the rest of that part of the building remains unchanged since the plant closed in the late 1990s.

Nearly all of the $7.93 million state allocation was used to fix the building's leaky roof and replace aging electrical and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, Wood said. UCCS plans to seek funding from government agencies, foundations and partners to renovate more of the building, ideally in the next 18 months, he said.

Brown sees the think tank, accelerator and workforce development programs as part of an overall cybersecurity "ecosystem" - or network of interconnecting and interacting parts - which he hopes will grow to include other elements such as space for cybersecurity companies that have completed the accelerator program.

"The NCC (National Cybersecurity Center) is the nexus of the ecosystem. It is not valuable as a stand-alone entity. Its value is as an engine of the ecosystem," Brown said. "Much like you have lanes for each competitor in a swim meet, the NCC is defining the swim lanes so that everyone knows their lanes."

The center's primary role will be to educate government and business leaders about cyber threats so they can develop public policy and make decisions for their businesses, Brown said. Much of that education will come from seminars and workshops the center conducts, including a two-hour workshop on blockchain technology - used by bitcoin and other virtual currencies - this month and a two-day cybersecurity training course in March for executives, as well as its annual three-day symposium that Brown hopes eventually will rival the weeklong Space Symposium that attracts 11,000 people here annually.

"We have formed a relationship with Cisco to develop a technology think tank and curriculum for cyber hygiene. Cisco is offering their expertise in blockchain and other cyber-related technology and will help us determine what does everybody need to know. We aren't paying them; they are like a sponsor of the NCC," Brown said.

The NCC staff also has been restructured since Brown took over as interim CEO. Jennifer Furda resigned as the center's chief operating officer in November to become program manager of external customer relations, retention and loyalty at health insurance giant Kaiser Permanente. Ed Anderson, who had been the center's first top executive on an interim basis before a permanent CEO was hired, was named chief of staff to replace Furda. The center also hired John Bolin, creator and longtime executive director of The Thorn theatrical production, as a marketing consultant.

Bolin has started publishing the CyberBrief newsletter for the center with short items on the latest cyber hacks, attacks and news in the cybersecurity industry as a way to boost the center's public profile and generate interest in its programs and memberships.

The center's programs and memberships are key to making the center self-supporting, which Brown hopes will happen this year. Memberships cost $295 for government agencies, $350 for individuals, $1,000 for up to five people in a business, $2,500 for 6-20 people in a business and a yet-to-be-specified amount for additional people from the same business.

The final part of Brown's vision for the center is Exponential Impact, an 11-week accelerator program to help startups focused on cybersecurity and related technologies turn into thriving businesses. He donated $100,000 to start the program, serves as president of the accelerator's board and hired Hannah Parsons, who had been chief economic development officer of the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, as CEO. He and Parsons want Exponential Impact to be based in the same building as the NCC, but details have yet to be firmed, she said.

Exponential Impact has received applications for its first "cohort," or class of 5-10 companies, and is still recruiting additional applicants who must apply at exponentialimpact.com by Feb. 23. Applicants must be past the idea stage and have developed a "minimum viable product" using cybersecurity, blockchain or artificial intelligence technology but they don't have to be generating revenue, Parsons said. They must commit to at least one founder attending the entire 11-week program and prefer that the entire management team participate, she said.

The companies will receive $30,000 in seed funding for all expenses - housing will be provided at Colorado College - for a 4 percent to 7 percent stake through investor partners in the accelerator, though participants can instead pay their own costs, Parsons said. The program begins June 1 and continues until an Aug. 17 demonstration day, when participating companies will pitch their ideas to investors. Some faculty and interns for each company will come from Colorado College and Exponential Impact is in talks with UCCS to provide faculty and student help for the program.

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Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234

Twitter @wayneheilman

Facebook Wayne Heilman

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