TEISS talks with another inspiring entrepreneur, Jean Yang, Founder of Akita, as part of our 'Start-ups and their Stories' series. In this interview, Jean covers privacy policies, the language of data, dealing with the certainty of uncertainty and why it's all, essentially, unglamorous hard work!
What’s your idea?
Organizations are processing sensitive data, from health records to Facebook posts, at unprecedented scale. There is incredibly exciting potential for progress in curing disease and in understanding human nature, there are also terrifyingly many opportunities for the data to become compromised. Today, companies struggle with even identifying where sensitive data lives on their servers, let alone enforcing privacy policies on the data. I am interested helping companies understand what they are doing with their data and automatically enforce high-level policies on data access and data flow.
What’s the story behind the idea?
I did my PhD at MIT in programming languages because I fell in love with the idea of being able to prove that software has certain properties. I became interested in privacy and security from this angle because it seems like the area where provable guarantees can be really helpful. My PhD thesis ultimately ended up being about a new programming language that bakes the enforcement of privacy policies into the language. Interested in understanding how to have impact with these kinds of ideas, I also worked on backend privacy at Facebook during my PhD. In the last couple of years, I’ve been looking for the right opportunity to build a product around enforcing privacy policies at the software level. GDPR, combined with the increased scrutiny on privacy at large companies, seems to provide that opportunity.
Who is your target audience? Who might benefit from it?
I am targeting businesses subject to HIPAA and GDPR regulation with enough data and sufficiently complex code bases and privacy policies that they would want to understand how their sensitive data is flowing across their systems.
What’s your USP?
The push for GDPR compliance has made companies realize just how little they understand their data. We’re developing a set of solutions for helping them manage their data. Our solution will be simple to use and provide strong technical guarantees. I want to build the best product in this space.
Which stage are you at?
I’m currently meeting with potential customers to help define the product.
Do you have any clients yet? Are any of them paying clients?
No clients yet.
Is there a quote that inspires you?
I like the quote “Dreams don’t work unless you do.” All epic efforts require a massive amount of unglamorous hard work.
Is there a place that inspires you?
I loved being a graduate student at MIT. The energy there was incredible and people would listen to you if they thought your ideas were good, not because of your title or because of things you had done in the past.
What is your advice for people with a cyber idea?
I’ve been told the most important thing is to figure out what problem I’ve been solving. That seems like solid advice.
What have you learnt through the process?
I’ve learned a lot about what companies need and don’t need--and how that’s different than what I might have expected!
What have been the toughest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Figuring out next steps when you have no product, no team, and no customers involves a lot of making bets on what to prioritize and going long periods of time without immediate feedback that you’re going in the right direction. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience with this kind of uncertainty while doing starting research projects as a PhD student and professor, but it’s hard every time!