Poppy Gustafsson runs a cutting edge, gender-diverse cybersecurity firm about to debut on the £ 3bn stock market, but she’s happy to refer to the pop culture classic Terminator to help describe what Darktrace actually does.
Launched in Cambridge eight years ago by an unlikely alliance of mathematicians, former GCHQ and US spies, and artificial intelligence (AI) experts, Darktrace offers protection, allowing companies to keep a length of ahead of increasingly clever and dangerous hackers and viruses.
Marketing its products as the digital equivalent of the human body’s ability to fight disease, Darktrace’s AI security functions as a “corporate immune system”, can “learn and heal itself” and has an “autonomous response capability” to tackle uneducated threats as they are detected.
“It really feels like we’re in this new era of cybersecurity,” says Gustafsson, CEO of Darktrace. “The arms race is absolutely going to continue, I really don’t think it’s going to be very long until [AI] innovation falls into the hands of attackers, and we’ll see these very targeted and specific attacks that humans won’t necessarily be able to spot and defend themselves.
“It won’t be these futuristic Terminator-style bots shooting each other, it will be all these little bits of code fighting in the background of our businesses. In my time here at Darktrace, I’ve seen attackers try [to] use things like Teslas parked in the office parking lot, [internet-connected] aquariums in casinos and fingerprint scanners on warehouse doors, all as a kind of new and new way of entering businesses.
Gustafsson was 30 when she co-founded Darktrace in 2013, and her star rose in tandem with the company’s rise from a promising tech start-up to a rare British ‘unicorn’ to join. the London Stock Exchange in the coming months. While Gustafsson will likely be worth at least £ 20million from the IPO of the company, which has nearly 5,000 clients ranging from the NHS to Coca-Cola, she has also become something of a champion of gender diversity. in the tech world dominated by men.
Darktrace employs more than 1,500 people worldwide, 40% of whom are women – including at the executive level – a rarity compared to an industry average of just 15%. A rare tweeter, the last message that still hangs at the top of her Twitter feed refers to the company’s “pride” in its gender diversity marking International Women’s Day.
“It’s just something I’m aware of when I’m doing interviews or when I’m at an industry event and suddenly you see a sea of men watching you,” she said. previously.
By design or not, Gustafsson, who received an OBE last year for his contribution to cybersecurity, has proven to be something of a gender stereotypical breaker for much of his life.
She grew up in Cambridgeshire, where her father ran a farm sales business and her mother was a reporter for Farmers Weekly. After attending Hinchingbrooke High School – alumni include Oliver Cromwell and Samuel Pepys, and Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel was the patron saint of her 450th birthday – she graduated with a math degree from the University of Sheffield, where his first student job was building kitchen cabinets. She then qualified as a chartered accountant at Deloitte before moving to Amadeus Capital, the venture capital firm run by ARM Holdings founder Hermann Hauser. In 2009, she joined Mike Lynch’s Autonomy, a company that would become inextricably linked to Darktrace, for a two-year stint, before the birth of the cybersecurity company.
In February, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who sits on Darktrace’s advisory board alongside former MI5 chief executive Lord Evans of Weardale and CIA veteran Alan Wade, wrote an article asking ” how we can find the future Poppy Gustafsson and more like her ‘as a man – science, technology, engineering and mathematics dominated. She also complained that despite the success of female-run Darktrace, when the company was written, “the only name that seems to be mentioned is the founder, Mike Lynch. It’s like women can’t manage their own show.
The problem is that Lynch, of which Invoke Capital was Darktrace’s first and largest shareholder, has always had a significant influence on the company. Autonomy’s co-founder is fighting extradition to the United States, where he is accused of fraudulently inflating the value of the company before its £ 8.4bn sale to Hewlett-Packard in 2011 Lynch, who could face a maximum prison sentence of 25 years if convicted, denies any wrongdoing.
Darktrace was built from former Autonomous staff, including Gustafsson, and in 2018 he was subpoenaed by US authorities to obtain information on Invoke, warning there was a risk of claims for money laundering if its support money included money from the sale of Autonomy. Darktrace says its liability in this regard is “low risk” in the IPO registration documents.
To create distance, Lynch left Darktrace’s board in 2018. However, he remained on its advisory board until last month, when he joined a newly formed science and technology council. Last year, Darktrace used $ 127 million from a loan from several existing investors to reduce Invoke’s stake. Lynch, along with his wife, Angela Bacares, currently owns 19% of Darktrace, worth up to £ 570million when the company floats.
Gustafsson has for the most part remained tight-lipped about his former boss, the backer who was instrumental in his rise to Darktrace, dismissing the idea that London could have been chosen over the United States for an IPO in because of Lynch’s situation.
“No, not at all” is all she will say.
Gustafsson, whose transport choice is a canary yellow Vespa and said his only regret is not spending more time learning the piano, is laser-focused to make sure Darktrace has a legacy that comes with him. is clean.
“It really feels like we’re just getting started,” she says. “We were never satisfied with going with the status quo and doing things, you know, 2% better than the last product. We’re never going to be happy to be a company that just follows in the footsteps of others. “