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Humans of MaRS: How RANK Software Inc. is fighting big-data threats with big-data solutions

The mysterious workings of Niranjan Mayya could be the stuff of a classic thriller, daring readers to venture into a world where vulnerable big data mingles on the mean streets of the dark web, where spies and criminals run rampant, viruses infect everything that breathes and the good guys are hopelessly outgunned.

  But Mayya, a mild-mannered computer scientist, thinks differently. As CEO of Toronto-based startup RANK Software Inc., he sees “a fascinating problem” in the dark world of cyber crime. Its potential solution, he says, is one of the most exciting opportunities in computing today.

   “The fundamental problem of detecting cybersecurity threats before they happen has gone unsolved,” says Mayya. Every new high-profile breach, from political emails to sensitive trade information, proves the point.

  “There's a huge need for systems that assist or automate the detection of threats, and that do it fast,” he says.

   Both the problem and the opportunity grow as the number of wired devices abounds and enterprises rely more heavily on network transactions. It currently takes an average of 209 days for an enterprise to discover a breach of its network, according to Mayya. RANK aims to reduce that period to a matter of hours.

  “Cybersecurity has clearly become a big-data problem,” Mayya says. With RANK, he is helping to pioneer a big-data solution, “investing heavily in data science to create machine models that will be able to detect these threats automatically.”

  Mayya's quest began at Blackberry, where he led a team that developed the Waterloo company's big-data system, designed to analyze user behaviour for the purpose of targeting advertisements. RANK began operating in the same space, as a “general-purpose big-data framework” that Mayya and a small team of engineers developed after he left Blackberry in 2013.  

  After winning a contract to help European-based telecommunications company Swisscom track down server hackers, RANK pivoted its focus to cybersecurity.

      Rather than merely trolling the dark web for suspicious signatures, RANK uses patterns of behaviour to hunt hackers. It also offers what Mayya calls “automated forensics” — a program that learns from the habits of security analysts well enough to function as a personal virtual assistant.

   Currently, RANK consists of a few desks in the Yorkville offices of Generation Capital, one of its early backers, but the team’s ambition is unlimited. “The challenge for us is doing something seminal,” Mayya says. “It's a huge opportunity to make a very significant difference.”

Michelle McBane is an Investment Director with the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF), a seed-stage fund. Michelle has over 18 years of combined operational and venture capital experience investing in disruptive companies. RANK Software is a MaRS IAF investee.