By the time he cofounded Elisity in 2018, Burjiz Pithawala was well-prepared for the role — even though he’d never launched his own company before, much less a cybersecurity startup.
Pithawala had spent more than 20 years as a manager at Cisco. But he wasn’t simply overseeing people.
Instead, he was something of an entrepreneur, helping launch new products, including its Network Analysis Toolkit, or NATkit, which later became a significant revenue generator for the company. He also helped launch and run an internal startup focused on software-defined networking. And when some of his colleagues left to form Viptela, a startup that offered a software-defined wide area network service, he worked with them as they were setting it up, although he ultimately decided to stay at Cisco.
“I’ve had a business streak of doing something more challenging than just running large groups,” Pithawala, Elisity’s CEO, told Business Insider in an interview Wednesday. While at Cisco, he continued, “I jumped from group to group, every time going and getting attracted either towards a massive technology problem or, in other cases, organizational issues.”
He does, however, regret not making the jump to Viptela. Cisco ended up buying the company for $610 million in 2017. Although that was less than some at the company hoped, the deal made him rue not joining the founding team.
“Obviously that was a mistake,”he said.
Still the experience with Viptela paid off in the long run. When he started Elisity and went out to raise money for it, he and his cofounders had little more than an idea, an initial prototype, and a presentation. But he had met the investors at Atlantic Bridge when he was working with Viptela, because they backed the startup. Atlantic Bridge ended up giving Elisity its initial investment — $7.5 million, which is large for a seed round and for a first-time founder.
“I was a little bit of a known quantity to them, and they were a known quantity to me,” Pithawala said.
Pithawala had done his homework before making his pitch
But he had more than that going for him. Security — in the form of firewalls, virtual private networks, and authenticated access to internal corporate systems — is a crucial part of networking. Through his long experience in the business, he knew that the systems that were being used widely to protect corporate networks and data largely weren’t designed for a world where many employees are working remotely and companies have data stored and applications running on multiple cloud-based systems.
The idea behind Elisity was to protect corporate systems not by concentrating on what network a particular device was on but by focusing on the individual accessing the system, the device they were using, and the applications they were trying to access. Elisity’s service, which is in the zero-trust networking space, is designed to make it easy for administrators to, say, allow a particular employee to access a certain application while on one device at one place, but not if they are in a different place or using another device. It also uses artificial intelligence technology to learn as it goes so that it automatically allows benign uses and shuts down suspect activity.
Before making his pitch to Atlantic Bridge, Pithawala ran his idea by numerous corporate technology and security executives. After they expressed interest, he brought some of them along to his meetings with investors.
They “corroborated our idea of this is where the world is moving [and that] they’re going to look at solutions like this … in the near future,” he said.
Elisity now seems poised to meet that promise. The San Jose company came out of stealth mode earlier this month with four customers already in proof-of-concept stage with its system. After going public with its service, it’s seen a surge of interest from potential customers, Pithawala said.
Pithawala and his team are targeting enterprise and mid-size businesses, since they’re the ones that could benefit from its service, due to their large numbers of employees and the complexity of their operations and systems. Elisity offers its products, which are hosted in the cloud, on a subscription basis, on annual and multi-year deals. It charges companies based on the number of employees who will be covered by its service.
The startup has some 25 employees split between Silicon Valley and India. But it may have more in the near future; Pithawala is planning on seeking Series A funding soon.
For now, though, he’s happy how things have gone for his company and for him as a first-time founder.
“I’m pleasantly surprised that I’m in the right space space,” he said. “Sometimes … sitting in the four corners of your office, you think you’re right, but the world may have moved on.”
Here’s the pitch deck Pithawala and Elisity used to raise its jumbo-sized seed round: