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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Myki seeks to solve the problem of identity protection

Lebanese start-up is on the cusp of growth

Myki co-founders Priscilla Elora Sharuk and Antoine Vincent Jebara set up Myki as a secure password manager. Karim Sakr for The National
Myki co-founders Priscilla Elora Sharuk and Antoine Vincent Jebara set up Myki as a secure password manager. Karim Sakr for The National

As a landscape artist Priscilla Sharuk was busy in 2014 working as a sub-consultant at a company involved in projects for now-deceased Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

For her, architecture represented aesthetics and functionality.

But when a family friend and cybersecurity consultant Antoine Jebara solved a password problem for her grandmother, she saw beauty and an opportunity to solving a world-wide problem: how to save and protect your password, data and identity.

The result is Myki, a free-to-download mobile app that was launched in May and allows users to protect their passwords.

“I loved my job and I loved my profession,” says Ms Sharuk, the cofounder of Myki with Mr Jebara. “But when we started we had no intention to build a business at the beginning. It started off as a hardware device that Antoine created for my grandmother to go into Skype and call my uncle without have manual input (of the password).”

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Opportunity knocked on the door when the MIT entrepreneurship forum in Cairo in 2014 heard about the product. Ms Sharuk and Mr Jabra decided to participate in the forum, their first competition that set into motion numerous participations in other events and programs.

“It was the first time that I attempted to do a pitch, but we actually ended ranking in the top ten. It was very motivational for us to feel maybe we are onto something here,” says Ms Sharuk.

She then applied and got accepted for a startup accelerator in Helsinki in 2014, which they won.

During the competition, she got great feedback from Angry birds creator Peter Vesterbacka and other mentors.

“They gave the confidence. That I can do this and this is great. You are on to something and you have a very valid model and you guys can do something great,” recalls Mr Sharuk. “That was the push that I needed to quit my (full-time) job and do something which is completely the opposite of what I studied.”

Then came the opportunity to participate in Techcrunch competition in San Francisco in September last year, the first Mena company to take part in the high-profile event, providing the momentum needed to launch the app.

“My background has helped me a lot in the decision making process and the ideas we come up with internally,” says Ms Sharuk. “I also talk about the importance of mentorship. I owe the risk taking to the mentors that helped me early on.”

Now Myki’s user base is growing at 30 per cent a week and has reached over 100,000 users. The founders are hoping to triple that number by the end of the year as the app gains traction.

The way the app works is that once is it downloaded the user has to put their fingerprint in order to be logged into his/her online account.

And that is what sets Myki apart from other password protection apps, according to the founders. Unlike other apps, Myki stores the information on devices rather than the cloud, making them immune to hacking, they add.

“So if a hacker gets into the server of Myki or a government asks us for information we don’t have any information to give away and this is the unique architecture we decided to follow where the information is scattered across users’ phones as opposed to being centralised in a central server in the clouds,” explains Mr Jebara.

They are also working on launching in the next few weeks an enterprise product for companies and another product for the government in the future.

The enterprise product allows the administrator of the company to have visibility and control where and when the employees log into company accounts, drawing a sort of virtual perimeter around the office.

They currently have over 80 companies, mainly small and medium-sized business from India to the US, that have signed up to use the enterprise product. Participation in competitions and accelerators in the US, Europe and the Middle East has helped spread the word about their products.

The government product is geared towards identity management and is yet to be developed. Myki is working with two unnamed governments to help develop the product, says Mr Jebara.

“It is a digital identity for citizens based on the blockchain, which is a new way of storing information in a decentralised manner,” says Mr Jebara. “Blockchain scatters information across user devices and in this way it makes it difficult to hack, almost impossible to hack and it creates a sort of democracy.”

With the mobile app being free, the founders are banking on the launch of the enterprise and government products to help monetise their business.

They also may add new paid features to the mobile app to help generate revenue, which could happen as soon as next year, says Mr Sharuk.

The company is able to develop its offering after securing US$1.2 million seed funding last year from Dubai-based venture capital firm Beco Capital, its first investment in cybersecurity and two Lebanese venture capitalists, B&Y Venture Partners and Leap Ventures.

Now Myki is planning their next round of funding, which could take place in the next six months.

“We understood from the first fund-raising experience that it takes time,” says Ms Sharuk. “We are starting to think who are the value added investors that would be ideal for Myki as we go into the growth stage and we continue to cement our product and continue to develop it and push it forward and increase our user base.”

Beco capital is ready to invest more in Myki.

“If they raise some money, we have reserved some capital more than we invested in the company to continue to support them as they grow,” said Amir Farha, chief investment officer at Beco.”It is probably more than five times as much (as we already invested).”

Beco is interested in Myki due to the potential of the cybersecurity space

The Middle East cyber security market size is estimated to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.2 per cent to reach $22.14 billion by 2022 from $11.38bn this year, according to research company Markets and Markets.

The growth of cyber security products comes on the heels of hacking incidents that have highlighted the importance of data protection.

The biggest reported hacking in the region was in 2012, when around 50,000 computers at Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil producing company, were brought down.

The incident was followed by many reports of hacking in other industries.

In the UAE alone, the total cost of cybercime in 2016 was $1.4bn, affecting nearly 2.4 million consumers, according to Norton Cyber Security Insights Report 2016.

But the problem could be bigger in the region overall.

“Due to laws in the US and Europe that mandate an organisation to disclose when a cyber attack has compromised customer data, companies such as Yahoo, Target, LinkedIn, and Sony have announced breaches from cyber attacks in the past,” said Haider Pasha, Chief Technology Officer, Emerging Markets for Symantec, the maker of Norton antivirus software.

“One in five (21 per cent) people have at least one unprotected device, leaving their other devices vulnerable to ransomware, malicious websites, zero days and phishing attacks.”

It is these staggering figures that provides opportunity for Myki to grow from just being a password protection app.

“Our big mission is to define the future of digital identity,” says Mr Jebara.

“If we are able to secure the identity of consumers then we would have done a lot of work really towards solving the big problem.”

Profile:

Company/date started: incorporated in October 2015

Founder/CEO: Priscilla Sharuk, Antoine Jebara

Based: Beirut

Sector: cybersecurity

Size: (employees/revenue) 10 employees

Stage: Seed capital

Investors: Beco Capital, B&Y Venture Partners, Leap Venture