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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-05-07

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A tycoon who has viruses in her sights

Spotlight

By Mark Sweney and Alex Hem

Poppy Gustafsson runs a cutting-edge cybersecurity firm on the brink of a £3bn ($4.1bn) stock market debut. Launched in Cambridge, UK, eight years ago by an unlikely alliance of mathematicians, former spies from GCHQ and the US, and artificial intelligence (AI) experts, Darktrace provides protection, enabling businesses to stay one step ahead of increasingly smarter and dangerous hackers and viruses. Marketing its products as the digital equivalent of the human body’s ability to fight illness, Darktrace’s AI-security works as an “enterprise immune system”, can “self-learn and self-heal” and has an “autonomous response capability” to tackle threats without instruction as they are detected. “It really does feel like we’re in this new era of cybersecurity,” said Gustafsson. “The arms race will absolutely continue; I really don’t think it’s very long until this [AI] innovation gets into the hands of attackers, and we will see these very highly targeted and specific attacks that humans won’t necessarily be able to spot and defend themselves from. “It’s not going to be these futuristic Terminator-style each other, it’s going robots to out be shooting all these little pieces of code fighting in the background of our businesses. In my time here at Darktrace, I’ve seen attackers try [to] use things like Teslas parked in the office car park, [internetconnected] fish tanks in casinos, and fingerprint scanners on the doors of warehouses, all as a sort of new and novel way into businesses.” Gustafsson was 30 years old when she co-founded Darktrace in 2013, and her star has ascended in tandem with the company’s rise from promising tech startup to rare British “unicorn” to list on the London stock market in the coming months. While Gustafsson is likely to be worth approaching $28m from the flotation of the business, which has almost 5,000 customers ranging from the NHS to Coca-Cola, she has also become a diversity champion in the male-dominated tech world. Darktrace employs more than 1,500 staff globally, of which 40% are female – including at management level – a rarity against an industry average of just 15%. “It’s only something I’m aware of when I’m doing interviews or when I’m at an industry event and suddenly you see a sea of men staring back at you,” she has previously said. Gustafsson, who was awarded an OBE last year for her contribution to cybersecurity, took a maths degree at the University of Sheffield. She then qualified as an accountant and after various finance jobs, in 2009 she moved to Mike Lynch’s Autonomy, a business that would become inextricably intertwined with Darktrace, for a two-year stint, before the cybersecurity company was born. Lynch, whose Invoke Capital was Darktrace’s first and biggest shareholder, has always had a significant influence on the business. The Autonomy co-founder is fighting extradition to the US, where he is accused of fraudulently inflating the value of the company before its sale to HewlettPackard in 2011. Lynch, who could face a maximum prison sentence of 25 years if found guilty, denies any wrongdoing. Darktrace was built from ex-Autonomy staff, including Gustafsson, and in 2018 it was subpoenaed by US authorities for information about Invoke. Gustafsson has for the most part remained tight-lipped about her former boss, rejecting the idea that London may have been chosen over the US for a flotation because of Lynch’s situation. “No, not at all,” is all she will say. The Darktrace chief executive, who has said her one regret is not putting more time into learning the piano, is focused on ensuring the company has a legacy all its own. “It really feels like we are just getting started,” she said. “We’ve never been happy with just sort of following the status quo and doing things, you know, 2% better than the last product. We are never going to be happy to be a company just following in the footsteps of others.”

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