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Supportive business climate, student talent help cybersecurity startup

Query.AI team
Four senior SDSU computer science interns and a full-time computer scientist who is an SDSU alumnus work with Query.AI founder Dhiraj Sharan. They are, from left, interns Ferdinand Ramos of South Shore and Minxuan Sun of Guangzhou, China; Sharan, Customer Success Engineer Craig Jorgensen, originally of Tyler, Minnesota; and interns Mahmood Alnasser of Al-Ahsa, Saudi Arabia, and Mark Kirschenman, of Huxley, Iowa. In addition, the company has two interns from Dakota State University in Madison and a team of senior engineers working remotely in Bangalore, India.

Three years ago, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dhiraj Sharan decided to start a company to help midsize to large companies protect themselves from cybersecurity threats. What he did not know then was that he would open his new business in Brookings, South Dakota.

That same year, his wife Anamika Prasad accepted a position as an assistant professor in the South Dakota State University Department of Mechanical Engineering. “It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” said Sharan, who started Query.AI in the Research Park at SDSU last year.

“Cybersecurity threats can come from scammers, competitors, intellectual property thieves or rogue nations—all these are in the national headlines,” said Sharan, who has worked in the enterprise information technology and cybersecurity space for the past 20 years. He also holds 10 patents in cybersecurity and IT data analytics

“Those kinds of threats have always been there, but now they are harder to detect. Now companies have to use advanced data analytics and AI techniques to continuously monitor their IT environment,” he said.

“When I came to know about the state’s focus on cybersecurity and the programs at South Dakota State University and Dakota State University, I saw there is talent here we can leverage. What has been missing from this ecosystem is the cybersecurity industry,” he said.

Sharan’s new business has garnered local and state recognition. Query.AI received the 2018 Company of the Year Award from the Brookings Innovation Center and placed second in the 2019 Governor’s Giant Vision Competition.

Strong support for entrepreneurs

Dhiraj Sharan
Strong local and state support for entrepreneurs and a pool of talented computer science students led Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dhiraj Sharan to start Query.AI in the Research Park at South Dakota State.

“The entrepreneurial culture, talent pool and local can-do attitude made launching Query.AI highly efficient and cost-effective,” Sharan said of the strong local and state support he found for entrepreneurs.

Early on, he met Dwaine Chapel, Research Park CEO and executive director. Chapel helped Sharan make connections at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development as well as the Brookings Innovation Center.

“He was an early believer who saw the opportunity the same way I did. He provided a lot of support and introductions,” Sharan said.

Chapel and Enterprise Institute Executive Director Tim Weelborg also introduced Sharan to angel investor groups. Though he began raising venture capital in Silicon Valley first, Sharan said, “Query.AI capital funding is split equally between Silicon Valley and here.”

Black Hills Regional Angel Fund in Rapid City, Falls Angel Fund in Sioux Falls, Hub City Capital LLC in Aberdeen and Park Capital Fund LLC are among the company’s South Dakota investors.

Through the GOED, Sharan also received support through the Dakota Seeds Program, which provides matching funds for interns, and the Proof of Concept Fund, which supports research to demonstrate the feasibility of innovations on the path to commercialization.

 “I feel being in South Dakota is a great advantage,” Sharan explained, citing lower operating costs. He also sees being “centered between two coasts in a Central time zone” as advantageous.

In addition to tapping into the student workforce, Sharan uses faculty expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning with assistant professor Semhar Michael of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics serving as an adviser. To fulfill the need for experienced senior engineers and professionals, Query.AI also has an engineering team in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India.

Benefits of SDSU connection

Query.AI sponsors senior design projects at SDSU as a means of not only connecting with students and faculty, but also collaborating with the campus IT group, Sharan noted. Vice President of Security and Technology Mike Adelaine and his team have built a central security operations center to monitor the South Dakota Board of Regents and Regents Information Systems’ cybersecurity data. The regental institutions face approximately 20 million cyberattacks each day.

This spring, Query.AI student intern Craig Jorgensen, who is now a full-time employee, was part of a three-member senior design team that worked with the SDSU security team.

“We came up with an open-source solution that allows them to access more data, more easily to get the answers and insights they can use to help stop phishing and other potential attacks on the university,” Jorgensen said.

The relationship with SDSU also benefits the company. “We can test our solution in a friendly home environment and they (the security team) can leverage it for their use cases,” Sharan said.

In addition to Jorgensen, four interns from SDSU and two from DSU work at Query.AI.

“For students graduating in computer science, we want to be the company where they come for internships first,” Sharan said. The demand for cybersecurity professionals is increasing dramatically with an estimated 3.5 million shortfall in the workforce worldwide by 2021. “This can be a springboard to a very nice career.”