Startup IronNet is going public via a $1.2 billion SPAC deal, and its founder says it's to accelerate the development of its cybersecurity tools to protect America

  • Former head of the NSA and Cyber Command Keith Alexander says the US must reorganize cybersecurity. 
  • Alexander is CEO of cybersecurity startup IronNet, which announced it is going public via SPAC.
  • Alexander believes the US needs one official to oversee all of cybersecurity for the nation. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

If the SolarWinds cyberattacks had sought to destroy US networks rather than just spy on them, “the financial impact on this country would have been huge,” says retired US Army General Keith Alexander, formerly the nation’s top cybersecurity official. 

“We’re not ready for that,” Alexander says of the inevitable next wave of sweeping cyberattacks, which he says could be much more destructive. “We haven’t war-gamed that out, nor have we trained the public and private sector on how they’re going to operate. But that’s going to come, and we’re not ready.”

Such attacks are coming, and America is unprepared, says Alexander, who may be uniquely qualified to assess the government and industry sides of American cybersecurity. Alexander is the longest-serving head of the National Security Agency and founder of US Cyber Command – two of the federal government’s main cybersecurity agencies. In a switch of roles one doesn’t see often, Alexander is now the founder of an edgy cybersecurity startup, IronNet.

This week IronNet announced it is going public with special purpose acquisition company LGL Systems Acquisition Corp. at a valuation of approximately $1.2 billion. IronNet, a Washington, DC, area company of 250 people, previously raised nearly $282 million in venture capital from investors including Bridgewater Associates, ForgePoint Capital, and Kleiner Perkins.

The deal makes it the latest startup opting to go public via SPAC — a company created to merge or acquire another business and take it public quickly and on a budget — rather than a traditional IPO.

Alexander said the urgent need for cybersecurity innovation was the reason to go public via this route. A traditional IPO route would have taken up to two years, he said, and IronNet has unique technology the country needs now, he believes. “We’re a little early, to be honest. The valuation would have been bigger later.” 

Cybersecurity world searching for new answers 

From the US Senate to Silicon Valley, America is searching for cybersecurity answers after two gigantic hacks – the SolarWinds and the Microsoft Exchange attacks – rocked thousands of companies and government agencies.  

How can the US government and cybersecurity industry work together to fend off Russia, China, and cyber-criminals? The federal government – not known for speedy adoption of innovation – needs to embrace new solutions fast. But how government and industry come together to bolster US cybersecurity is not yet clear.

Alexander believes his startup and other companies have answers. IronNet combines three emerging cybersecurity trends – artificial intelligence, behavioral analytics, and intelligence sharing – for the new kind of tools many say the government and US companies need. 

Behavioral analytics study how things transpire online. Most people might be familiar with behavioral analytics in mobile devices that learn to recognize users’ faces and voices. But behavioral analytics can also watch networks to learn what is normal, and what is an anomaly – like a hacker. AI can sift through those anomalies to see what is important for cybersecurity teams to look into. And information sharing can help different organizations see if they are facing similar attacks. 

Could that kind of new cybersecurity system have caught SolarWinds or the Microsoft Exchange attacks? It’s impossible to say. But Alexander believes American government and industry must start adopting the latest cybersecurity tools. “Everyone needs innovation,” Alexander says. 

Alexander is now shopping the IronNet tools to some of the same military personnel who once worked for him – reluctantly, he says. “I didn’t want to, initially,” he told Insider, sensitive to selling something to his former staff. “Everyone worked for me. After six years some of them came to me and said, ‘hey, what you’re doing is what our nation needs. Get over it.'”

Startups and companies ready to plunge into fixing America’s vulnerabilities will play a big part, he believes. 

“I think some companies can act like they’re a startup, and others are going to go through a drawn-out process, which may not be helpful right now,” he says. 

SentinelOne, Hunters Security, and ReliaQuest are also startups with AI tools that could help prevent future attacks, experts say. More established public companies CrowdStrike, FireEye, and Palo Alto Networks will also play a key role in guarding the nation’s infrastructure against hackers.

Alexander says US cybersecurity must reorganize 

But in order for the government to fend off attacks, Alexander says it must get better organized.  

“I think nine different federal agencies or departments were hacked by SolarWinds, and none of them knew the other ones were being hacked. That’s crazy!”

Alexander believes the nation needs a chief cybersecurity officer, rather than several overseeing different agencies. Today, Brandon Wales is acting director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; General Paul Nakasone oversees the NSA; Anne Neuberger is deputy national security advisor; and Chris DeRusha is the US chief information security officer. More Biden cybersecurity appointees are expected. 

“Having a singular person who could shift resources, people, and money around at a time when the nation needs them” would help “ensure the security of this country,” Alexander believes. “Give them the resources and then hold them accountable.”

Alexander says he believes there should be better collaboration between government and industry, but that federal organization is a priority. “There is no collective defense in the government,” he says. “Think about that. We should fix that.”

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