Bill Buchanan

Edinburgh Napier’s School of Computing has revealed plans to spin out a business dedicated to tackling the multi-billion pound ransomware market.

Memcrypt follows earlier University cybersecurity ventures ZoneFox, Symphonic Software and Cyan Forensics in making the leap from the research lab to the market.

Ransomware – malware that encrypts files, giving the attacker scope to demand a ransom to restore access - is increasingly becoming the attack of choice for cybercriminals as it has a high chance of financial return coupled with a low chance of detection, and the threat is increasing daily.

However, the University’s cryptography experts are developing new methods of detecting ransomware as it runs. This will provide new ways of stopping the ransomware from infecting systems before it has a chance to spread.

The team’s work is part of Innovate UK’s CyberASAP programme accelerator and is also supported more recently by Scottish Enterprise’s High Growth Spin-out Programme - the early stage growth challenge fund.

Memcrypt has evolved around a technical team of Professor Bill Buchanan, Dr Peter McLaren, Dr Owen Lo and Dr Gordon Russell, and a core business team of Dia Banerji (Imagine Ventures Ltd) and Matt Burdge (the Business Development and Relationship Manager supporting the School of Computing), as the University seeks to repeat earlier successes in converting ground-breaking research into high impact spin-outs.

Threat analytics spin-out ZoneFox has since been acquired by US giant Fortinet, and Symphonic Software and Cyan Forensics have also scaled up to become players in the international marketplace.

At the heart of Memcrypt lies Dr Peter McLaren’s PhD work, the first to discover the presence of the key schedule of a popular encryption method - ChaCha20 – within running memory on the computer.  Another team member, Dr Owen Lo, earlier showed that encryption keys could be discovered just by listening to the electrical noise created by a device. Dr McLaren said: “The core of our approach is to search for things that look completely random with memory, and mark these as suspicious.”

Dia Banerji said: “Ransomware attacks can have a debilitating effect on businesses, often leading to a loss in revenue, falling share prices and reputational losses. We aim to better protect those at risk, and work with law enforcement agencies on improving their responses to these attacks.”

Professor Bill Buchanan, who played a key role in the research which paved the way for Edinburgh Napier’s earlier cybersecurity spin-out successes, added: “Ransomware affects virtually every market sector, and can affect every size of the company. While building our company in Edinburgh, we aim to scale on an international basis.”

Fiona Mason, Head of Business Engagement and IP Commercialisation at the University, said: “We are delighted that our emerging spin-outs are recognised by CyberASAP and by Scottish Enterprise. Our success here is testament to the entrepreneurship, commitment and creativity of the University's academic staff and students, supported by our talented Business Engagement and IP team in the Research Innovation and Enterprise Office who worked tirelessly to bring these opportunities to life.

“Over the last 10 years, our School of Computing has achieved three successful cyber spin-outs; ZoneFox in 2010, Symphonic in 2013 and Cyan Forensics in 2017.

“All of these spin-outs are currently in operation and growing, with ZoneFox having been acquired by the NASDAQ-listed US company Fortinet. This success is further highlighted in a UK government-backed report from The London Office for Rapid Cybersecurity Advancement (LORCA), which listed Edinburgh Napier in the top six universities that have contributed to the cybersecurity spin-out ecosystem.

“We believe Memcrypt will be our next game-changer.”

Kate Buckle
Article by Kate Buckle
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