Srinivas Mukkamala, Ph.D., CEO and Co-Founder, RiskSense
Srinivas Mukkamala grew up in India, where he attained his undergraduate degree in Computer Sciences and Engineering. His focus of study was artificial intelligence (AI). He began his career working as an intern for the Indian Space Research Organisation, the space agency of the Government of India, working on artificial neural networks for space trajectory.
Mukkamala was recruited by the U.S. Department of Defense to help the agency understand artificial intelligence and the applicability of neural networks to cybersecurity problems. He moved to the U.S. in 2000 at the age of 21, for his work, and also to pursue his master’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech).
“I was able to build neural networks for large scale institutions, but I discovered that they won’t give the desired results at scale,” says Mukkamala. “This approach wasn’t well suited for cybersecurity because there are so many unknowns, and you really have to understand the problem better before you apply neural networks. I came up with an alternative solution called ‘support vector machines’ that allows you to do better modelling, and also better machine learning for cybersecurity. I was one of the first to use this technology for large scale institutions. I actually hold a patent on this.”
Mukkamala and his colleagues started playing with several attack data sets because they needed to make sure that the models actually worked. “We were always starving for data because nobody would want to give us their actual data. Then we decided to approach different departments to offer our modelling and machine learning services in exchange for their data. We positioned it as a way to build a model that would help the United States with cybersecurity, and it worked,” says Mukkamala.
He got an opportunity to work on a project called CACTUS—Computational Analysis of Cyber Terrorism Against the U.S. “We were looking at exploits, what the bad guys were doing, how they are spreading things on the internet, and how they’re affecting the battlefield when there were two active wars going on,” says Mukkamala. “I was leading the project from an attack surface and attack validation perspective. This is when it struck me to take the exact same concepts and apply them for a traditional enterprise, because they’re no different. I mean, they have a mission, they have certain things they need to worry about. They need to really know what their attack surface is so they can put the right resources in place to protect the enterprise.” This was, essentially, the birth of the concept for Mukkamala’s eventual company, RiskSense.
During this same time frame, Mukkamala got his master’s and doctoral degrees in Computer Science and Engineering from New Mexico Tech. He published more than 100 technical papers, did a tour in academia and then decided to become an entrepreneur.
Mukkamala and RiskSense co-founder Mark Fidel bootstrapped the company and initially worked with a staff of graduate students “to give them an opportunity to do some meaningful work.” They found investors and grew the company. “I was able to recruit John Stewart, Cisco’s Chief Security and Trust Officer, to join our board,” says Mukkamala. “He liked the journey where I came from, as an undergraduate student in India, to neural networks and helping the U.S. government. He agreed to mentor and advise me. The same thing happened with our investors. They liked the story of what we have done, including how we are a spinout from New Mexico Tech. Today we say we are a leader in proactive cyber risk management.”
Mukkamala is married and he has two sons. The family lives in Los Altos, CA. He doesn’t have much free time for hobbies as he continues to build his company, but he does enjoy gardening. He comes from an agrarian society, and his grandfather was a farmer. “My family has a lot of land in India, and we still do agriculture back home,” he says. “While I’m not a gentleman farmer in the U.S., I do enjoy my garden.”