As Darktrace goes public on the London Stock Exchange today, it cements its status as one of the most successful cybersecurity companies in the world. Needless to say, this is a huge boost for the UK’s tech sector – as well as being a monumental moment for Talis, as it marks the first company in our portfolio to go public. It’d be an understatement to say that I, and the Talis team, are hugely proud of Poppy and the Darktrace team’s commitment to their mission – as well as their impeccable execution in building the company to be the cybersecurity juggernaut that it is today.
Darktrace – which achieved unicorn status in 2018 – has been long-acclaimed as a UK tech success story, widely cited for not only for its incredible pace of growth, its industry-defining standards for gender equality (with a 40% female employee base globally) but also the pivotal role it has played in protecting the public. In 2016, shortly after the company had coined its ‘machine-fights-back’ technology, the infamous WannaCry attack occurred, a fast-moving form of ransomware: Darktrace’s deployment in NHS trusts in the UK enabled quick action to, quite literally, save lives. The company also was hailed for its response to the Chinese nation state attack of March 2020 – named PT41 – which was a monumental moment for cyber AI technology as it flagged a ‘zero day’ attack (a never-seen-before cyber attack) two full weeks before any human analysts.
While the company has seen rapid growth over the past eight years – now boasting a remarkable roster of over 4,000 clients worldwide, employing 1,500 in 44 office locations – the company had somewhat humbler beginnings. We were first introduced to the company in 2013: at the time, Darktrace was a small team of six, world-class mathematicians from the University of Cambridge, who were experimenting with how to help machines learn a sense of self. Poppy Gustafsson, Nicole Eagan, Jack Stockdale, Emily Orton and Dave Palmer – the company’s founders, who still lead the business to this day – had partnered with the former cyber experts at the UK’s GCHQ to help to resolve their frustrations around cyber attackers who had been winning too many battles.
We’d started looking at the cybersecurity space in 2011, but we were keen to see alternatives to what was in the market already, which was largely made up of endpoint security solutions, perimeter defence, next-gen firewalls, email security tools and some security incident and event management solutions. The common denominator with every product on the market at the time was that they were all focusing on outside-in defence: and at that time, some of the biggest cyber attacks in history like Yahoo, eBay and Sony had been a result of insider threats. We were looking for a company that was taking a fundamentally different approach to the problem.
Darktrace stood out from its perceived competitors. If others were trying to use machine learning, or they were planning to use artificial intelligence, most of them were supervised. Darktrace was the first company to actually showcase and prove that it could use unsupervised machine learning that learns as it goes: which, at the time, was a completely revolutionary approach to AI in cybersecurity.
It’s really not every day you meet founders like Poppy and the team. While they’ve all grown as leaders over the past few years, it was clear they were serious about their mission when we met to discuss leading their Series A in 2015. Frankly, the company didn’t feel like a startup then. With some founders, you’re solely buying into their passion, vision and drive when you invest: with Darktrace, they paired their passion and vision with world-class experience. Nicole, for example, was bringing over 20 years’ worth of experience of closing large enterprise sales contracts, close to $100m, with the likes of Oracle. At this stage of their journey, they’d taken on Drax, the UK’s largest utility company, as their client which speaks volumes for a pre-Series A startup. They also had a world-class advisory board guiding them through the development of their innovation, which enabled massive opportunities for the company early on.
The integration of AI within cybersecurity has become a necessity in recent years: Poppy predicts that cyber criminals will imminently get their hands on this kind of AI innovation, and as a result, the world is going to see highly targeted and specific attacks that require the most comprehensive technology to fight back. The COVID era has also only highlighted the necessity for the highest level of protection of IT infrastructure which now must extend to and protect every individual’s home office.
The company’s IPO is a landmark event for the London Stock Exchange and the British technology sector, paving a new path for flourishing tech companies to follow in their footsteps. London was the natural choice for Darktrace’s IPO listing: the company’s roots are in Cambridge and its heritage is deeply embedded within the country’s thriving security sector. While in some ways today’s news marks the end of a chapter for Darktrace, we know that they’re just getting started. Darktrace has never followed the status quo and will continue to forge its own future as a publicly listed company, and it’s absolutely our pleasure to support Poppy and the team in the next phase of this monumental journey.
Read more on the news:
Darktrace shares jump 40% in IPO, Financial Times