GCE ‘A’ Level dropout founded S’pore cybersecurity startup watchTowr that raises US$10.25m in 9 months
SINGAPORE – Unlike most of his peers, Benjamin Harris does not have a college degree, not even a GCE “A” level certificate.
But the 28-year-old is the founder and CEO of watchTowr, a Singapore-based cybersecurity startup that has successfully raised a total of US $ 10.25 million (US $ 14.2 million) less than ‘one year after its entry into operation.
watchTowr announced on Tuesday (July 5th) that it had raised $ 8 million in a pre-Series A investment round, co-led by Prosus Ventures and Vulcan Capital, and with the repeated participation of Wavemaker Partners. That comes after an initial round of $ 2.25 million in November last year.
Harris, a British national, also recently entered the Forbes 30 under 30 list in the business technology category, a feat that surprised him.
Sitting with Yahoo Finance Singapore in a media interview, Harris explains how he founded the company despite his lack of academic qualifications, including his first encounter with a computer when he was a hyperactive child.
The young founder of WatchTowr, named after a military structure that dominates and guards a territory, speaks frankly and at a fast pace.
His work is as similar as it is fast. Because he had to constantly react to ever-evolving security threats, Harris developed a system to do it for him. Its framework continuously tests the client interface to detect possible vulnerabilities and threats in real time.
This, he said, was an improvement on the more “traditional” model of cybersecurity consulting, where systems are reviewed at a given time and in reports drawn up during working hours, he said.
When customers received their reports, the threats themselves may not be relevant or, worse, may have been exploited. He compares this method to “a mole.” By the time the receipt is obsolete, he added.
First encounter with a computer
Although he was now an expert in his field, Harris’s path did not always lead to computers.
As a child, Harris’ parents had sent him to a prestigious music school in the United Kingdom to become a professional cellist. That didn’t work.
Prior to that, while in a boarding school, a seven-year-old Harris came across a story in The Times newspaper about two people who had been arrested for hacking into Department of Defense computers.
“I was seven years old and I had a headache. It was fascinating: the idea of being able to get into computers from the bedroom at home, with just a computer and a phone line. And that was kind of the beginning of the constant decline of my childhood, I would say.
Harris began playing with school computers, trying to avoid security restrictions for fun.
“I kept reading about people who could get into computers … I think I see a consistent theme in my life is wanting to understand how, and that led me down a lot of different paths … it became an obsession.” he said.
When asked why computers specifically, Harris replied, “I think computers make sense. It’s binary.”
“I’m a very black and white person, I would say, so computers are true or false. There is no emotion involved. There is no confusion. There is no understanding of the other party. Is that if it works, it works. If it doesn’t work. This is your fault. Since you didn’t do anything, I didn’t write anything correctly. And that makes life a little more transparent. “
When Harris moved to music school around the age of 10 or 11, it was already the beginning of the end. Instead of using the free time he had for music, Harris would surf the Internet to fuel his obsession with computers.
As a hyperactive kid who often got into trouble, computers were the only thing that could keep him focused.
Forced to leave without their ‘A’ levels
When Harris was 15, the school and his parents came to an agreement that music was not for their son. He moved to a sixth-grade university (similar to the University of Singapore), which had been told about Harris ’story with the school’s computers.
The school made him sign a document that if he manipulated his computers, they could kick him out, he said.
After a year of doing nothing, “boredom began,” and the school soon noticed abnormal activity on its servers and suspected Harris.
Harris declined to give details about what he did, except to say he was just trying to see what he could “access” out of curiosity.
Harris was given two options: be investigated by police or leave. He chose the latter.
At the time, formal education no longer made sense for Harris, who decided to enter the growing penetration testing industry, which is a simulated cyberattack against computer systems to check for exploitable vulnerabilities.
The beginning of his career
Armed only with his “O” levels, Harris found a job as a security consultant at Portcullis Computer Security, where he was finally free to work with his only love: computers.
“I threw myself into absolutely everything. So it was like an extension of my obsession at the time,” he joked.
Very aware of his lack of paper qualification, Harris said he “aggressively sought” industry qualifications to secure his employment, going directly to advanced qualifications. He later changed companies but held a similar role.
Throughout his career, Harris only re-examined his educational qualifications once when he considered leaving the UK and realized that qualifications were a general requirement for work visas in other countries.
“So I followed this path of exploring how I can get a part-time degree in just about anything just to meet the visa requirements to move,” he said.
His plans to obtain a degree came to a standstill when the company he was with later moved him to Singapore in 2014 to help him with his regional expansion.
Practical skills outperform paper grades
“I think, throughout my career, I’ve had people tell me that there will be a glass ceiling, because you don’t have a title that you will never be able to earn X amount of money, or how people trust you. Harris said of his lack of tertiary qualification.
“It was a topic when I first moved to Singapore in a lot of conversations, where clients like to review resumes … they asked you where you went to college and I explained well that I didn’t really go.”
In early 2021, he resigned from the company and started watchTowr a few months later in August. It was then that Harris received help from an unlikely route: a college friend who was forced to leave.
The friend worked in venture capital and connected Harris with the right people. Within weeks, Harris managed to raise $ 2.25 million in initial funding from Wavemaker Partners and Vulcan Capital.
Since then, his company has expanded to 13 employees, has fintech and banking clients and has much more than a degree can offer. On the industry, he said, “I think space is generally heating up. There’s probably competition. I think we’re very lucky to be a credible group of people in both engineering and cybernetics. and so on because we have the real experience of getting into organizations, helping companies make sure.
“We’re not academics, we don’t talk theoretically. We don’t sell snake oil. It’s from real experience and real ability.”
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