Tech start-up of the week: Cernam

25 Mar 2012

Owen O'Connor, managing director, Cernam, which is based at NovaUCD

Our tech start-up of the week is Cernam, a new spin-in based at NovaUCD that is pioneering technologies to change the face of digital evidence and forensics in the web space.

Owen O’Connor is the brains behind Cernam and it was in early 2008 that he set up the company. He says he then spent two years looking at opportunities in the digital evidence area, researching markets and raising funds through consulting.

“At the beginning of 2010 we hired our first developer and began implementing and testing Cernam’s first product, the Capture & Preserve system. So in total we’re running about four years at this point, two years actively developing our technology,” he explains.

Cernam is a spin-in, having based itself at UCD’s start-up incubation centre NovaUCD.

“We are a spin-in in college terms. I had a previous relationship with UCD Computer Science from helping to establish the UCD Centre for Cybercrime Investigation, so when I returned from the US to form Cernam it seemed like NovaUCD would be an ideal location,” says O’Connor.

Right now Cernam employs six people, including a cyberpsychology graduate from IADT, but O’Connor says the aim is to expand later this year.

Digital evidence

So how is Cernam hoping to be a game-changer with its digital evidence technology?

“The field of digital evidence suffers from a significant innovation gap, between the tools employees use on a day-to-day basis and the forensic software we rely on for lawsuits and investigations,” explains O’Connor.

“We use sophisticated tools and processes to collect email and PC evidence, yet in the same projects we preserve web content using screenshots or printouts.”

He says Cernam is developing unique tools which bring forensic rigour to the collection, preservation and analysis of online evidence.

“Our goal is to bring online evidence into every context where digital evidence is used today.”

According to O’Connor, the company’s Capture & Preserve technology marks the beginning of the end for stop-gap solutions such as screenshots and printouts. He says that the technology will enable, for the first time, true evidential preservation of web content, especially for the legal and HR fields to capture content.

“The same evidence files can also be analysed in detail by experts, for example to reveal hidden details of a Twitter message or to examine the underlying timestamps in Facebook content,” he says.

And he says that Cernam is on a mission to change the way that online evidence is handled in criminal cases, in civil lawsuits, even in internal investigations and disciplinary matters which could lead to legal action.

But just who is using the company’s technology right now?

“We designed Capture & Preserve for two audiences: firstly digital evidence experts and secondly other investigative professionals. The second group is dominated by the legal profession taking in solicitors, barristers, attorneys, paralegals, but would also include HR professionals who are handling disciplinary matters, as well as corporate security teams who manage investigations or respond to security breaches,” he explains.

He says that for digital technology experts Cernam’s technology could be integrated with other investigative tools, for example to automatically collect as evidence all of the URLs in a particular set of email data, or to capture copies of blog posts which are accessed through a company network.

The name Cernam itself is derived from Latin, from the word ‘cerno’ which has to do with distinguishing, sifting and separating.

“It is the root of the English word “discern”, for instance, and we think it relates very well to the core concepts in digital evidence. More importantly for when we started out, it is a short and memorable name which was available as a .com domain!” says O’Connor.

Information security background

O’Connor has quite a colourful background is in corporate information security, as he has over 15 years’ experience in dealing with areas like security incident response, digital evidence and e-discovery.

Before setting up Cernam, for instance, he was was employed as director of IT security with a global biotech giant.

He has also advised companies and law enforcement agencies on issues relating to digital evidence and Internet crime. He had a previous role, for instance, as an expert trainer for law enforcement with Interpol and was a member of the Interpol European Working Party on IT Crime.

But back to the start-up and how has the company grown to where it is now? “We are fortunate to have a consulting side to our business where we work directly with clients to solve digital evidence issues, for example managing the use of electronic data in litigation,” explains O’Connor. “We also ran a successful conference last year, the first electronic discovery and digital evidence conference in Ireland.”

He says that Cernam is looking to raise external funding later this year.

Growth plans

And the company’s plans for 2012?

“We are very excited about rolling out our Capture & Preserve technology and bringing forensic rigour to online evidence. There is a huge need to improve standards in this area, to stamp out the use of screenshots and other image-based capture of online evidence, and ultimately to improve the way the legal system uses online evidence. That’s a big goal but we think we can make a good start on it in 2012,” explains O’Connor.

He says that other goals include securing investment, growing the team, and enhancing the start-up’s technology.

“We have a packed product roadmap, both for Capture & Preserve and subsequent products, and we are looking forward to some very exciting developments this year, in line with the external trends which drive our market such as the adoption of personal cloud services,” affirms O’Connor.

Start-up challenges

But have there been any challenges to setting up? “In an average month, maybe a dozen new challenges … Starting a technology company is certainly not easy, particularly in Ireland. I don’t think anyone comes to this with the exact right mix of skills and experiences, so everyone faces a different set of challenges. If I were to start again tomorrow I would certainly do many things differently and better, but no doubt would also make a whole new set of mistakes and missteps,” he says.

He says that NovaUCD has been “enormously helpful”, and in particular the Campus Company Development Programme that’s run by Dr Ciara Leonard.

“We have also really appreciated Microsoft’s support in the form of their Bizspark programme, and we have been supported by Enterprise Ireland as a high-potential start-up.

Advice for nascent entrepreneurs

So what insights would O’Connor share other tech self-starters out there right now?

“It’s difficult to give advice to others while being this close to the start-up experience, and in any case my perspective is more on the corporate or enterprise market rather than consumer opportunities where so many start-ups are focused. With that context though I think the main advice I would give is to pick an opportunity which has a good bit of ‘runway’, in terms of being a bit more of a medium- to long-term opportunity.

“Everything will take twice as long as you expect, if you’re lucky, so I would forget about the kind of overnight successes that we see in the consumer area – even as rare as they are in consumer, I don’t think they happen in enterprise.

He also advises not to work from home and to try base yourself at an incubation centre like NovaUCD.

“It might seem crazy but there is something reassuring about still being in your office at 9pm and realising there are a dozen other people doing the same thing – or even better, leaving at 9pm and walking by all of the lit offices!”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic