Self-proclaimed “Southern girl” Ellison Anne Williams acknowledges that she is a math and computer science geek. She attended universities in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, where she earned separate Masters degrees in Computer Science and in Mathematics, as well as a Doctorate in Mathematics.
But the high tech field wasn’t her original plan. “I was actually pre-med when I started college. I thought I would be pre-med and do infectious diseases, something very different,” says Williams. “I started out double majoring in math and French. Then I thought, ‘well, this math thing is kind of fun, so I guess I’ll do that for a while.’ I planned to go to graduate school for a while and see where that went. And then it just led on and on.”
Before long, Williams was stacked up with degrees, and the National Security Agency took an interest in hiring her. She says she did “a little bit of everything” with the NSA. “I specialized in distributed computing, such as what happens when you have hundreds or thousands of machines, and you need to compute across them in some kind of coordinated or orchestrated manner,” says Williams. “I figured out how to take mathematical algorithms that would typically run in a single instance, and make them parallel so they are able to process extremely large volumes of information.”
During her 12 years at the NSA, some of which she spent at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Williams developed some technology under the umbrella of a larger effort she was working on for the agency. There was an opportunity to take a piece of that technology out of the NSA to commercialize it, and Williams jumped at the chance. Being an entrepreneur was something she had always wanted to do.
“I come from a long line of entrepreneurs, including my dad and my grandparents, who started their own businesses in various arenas, including real estate development. Entrepreneurship was modeled for me growing up,” says Williams. “When the opportunity arose to spin out my technology from the NSA, I thought it would be a great first company. We would be able to offer very unique technology that had not been commercially available before.”
The company that Williams founded and now leads as CEO is called Enveil, which comes from “encrypted veil.” Enveil focuses on securing data in use when it’s being processed, such as for activities like searches or analytics, as opposed to locking it down on the file system, or as it moves through the network. At this writing, the company is just over a year old and has received at least $5 million in investment funding, but the technology itself is much older.
“We developed the core of this technology inside of the National Security Agency, where we spent a long time perfecting our approach to homomorphic encryption,” says Williams. “The agency has an official transfer program designed to allow technology that people developed inside of its walls to be commercialized. It’s a long process involving lots of equities reviews to determine the effect of releasing the technology. In our case we were able to own the technology completely, meaning we don’t license anything back.”
“Enveil is a data security company that answers the question, ‘how do you lock data down during its processing?’,” says Williams. “Companies will commonly encrypt their data at rest, and encrypt it as it moves around. But whenever it’s being processed, it’s typically been decrypted. Until now, there has been no way to process data in its encrypted state. Because we have the capability to do so, it positions us extremely uniquely in the cybersecurity world.”
Williams says that Enveil’s solution has horizontal application across many industries. “Initially we have been working with folks in the financial services arena, as well as some clients in healthcare and in the data aggregator world. Data aggregation is an interesting space because the entire business of these companies revolves around selling API access to certain kinds of data. For example, Enveil allows financial analysts to encrypt their search before sending it over to the data aggregator, and enables the data aggregator to then process the information without ever decrypting it. This ensures that the data is never revealed or compromised. Without Enveil, basic actions such as merger and acquisition, or trade research could ultimately reveal deal-altering information. Even revealing the fact that there is interest in a certain company or a trade has potential to move the market quite substantially. Our technology keeps all data encrypted and confidential, even during processing.”
“I tell enterprises all the time to assume that they’ve already been hacked,” says Williams. She says that since Enveil is able to keep things encrypted all the time, even if an attacker makes off with the data, it is encrypted and has no value. “We provide a complementary piece to other cybersecurity measures.”
Williams says her company has a lot of customer education to do, even with security-aware audiences because what Enveil offers is very new and different. “Some folks don’t understand that when they are doing analytics or searches on their data, that it’s getting decrypted for the processing and then the data is vulnerable and in the open.”
Nevertheless, Williams is having fun with her first entrepreneurial foray. In a way, she has been preparing for this moment all her life.