Day: 1 June 2020
From academic research through spin-off company to becoming a global leader
He started with his colleague from the FIT BUT as the first employees of a company operating from a single room. Today, Jiří Tobola leads a company that belongs among the industry leaders in the area of network traffic monitoring and analysis and employs 130 people. "This is a great success story showing where an academic research can lead," says the current CEO of Flowmon Networks. The company was founded three years ago as a university spin-off company and, today, it has more than a thousand customers all over the world.
You started as a "garage company", today you are one of the industry leaders. How did you manage that?
It has been a long and winding road. It started with our academic research project in which we wanted to compete with Cisco's products. Although an ambitious plan, in the end it was not a very good idea. We had to start again from scratch and find our own path. That is when we turned our attention to computer network monitoring and security. Our unique prototypes were lauded even by the European Commission which suggested that we should commercialise them.
That was the beginning. The technology was created by a group of researchers from the CESNET association; Flowmon Networks was then founded as a spin-off company with the universities being its shareholders. What are the advantages of the connection to the academic world?
First and foremost, it enables a long-term co-operation with the university. It is easier for us to agree on joint research projects or discuss student diploma thesis topics. This is a great advantage that helps us with the innovation of our products. Nowadays, regular co-operation with universities is an integral part of the development and innovation process at Flowmon Networks. We are working together on a number of research and development projects. Our customers can see the results of our co-operation every day.
You too started in the university environment. What did you learn from it?
This is a great success story showing where an academic research can lead. I started at FIT in 2002 and back then, it was new and a bit unorthodox to work on projects in groups. However, it was the right preparation for the real-world company environment. It is great that there are multiple research groups at the school and they work on a large number of projects. From my second semester, I was able to work on a research in the Liberouter project. Apart from the welcome scholarship, this also enabled me to work on a Bachelor's and diploma theses which had a real-life practical impact and were not just an academic exercise. In the end, the Liberouter project evolved into Flowmon. I only regret that I was not able to conclude my academic stint as a graduate from doctoral studies; unfortunately, it soon became evident that combining research work with commercialisation of its results is extremely time-consuming.
PHOTO: Archive of Flowmon Networks
Thirteen years ago, Czech universities did not have many experiences with commercialisation. Neither did you with business, right?
Yes, that is the area where we were most lacking experience. The support provided by the South Moravian Innovation Centre was therefore very important; they provided us with not just facilities, but also valuable consultations, seminars, legal services and contacts from the very beginning. The appointment of Rostislav Vocilka as the managing director was also crucial. He brought the necessary experience from his previous employments at ICT companies. Specifically, he had experience with building up sales, launching brands on the market, team leadership and creation and transformation of company structures.
So is that the formula for achieving success - a great technology supported by capable management?
Hundreds of pieces need to fall into place to reach success. And it might have never happened without a number of seemingly less important decisions. For me, the success is based on having a team of the right people, motivation to make something great and a strong technology. The product itself has changed over the time and will further change in the future, but if you are surrounded by the right team, you can achieve unexpected and unplanned success. Looking back I have to admit that we came at the right time with the right technology and were very lucky in choosing our acquisitions. From the technology side, Flowmon's success went hand in hand with the change of companies' approach to the security of their IT infrastructures.
What has changed?
At the time when we founded Flowmon, it was evident on the global market of security solutions that the existing manners of IT infrastructure security based on the protection of the network perimeter and end stations were no longer sufficient. The traditional tools can only defend a company against certain types of attacks. Therefore, a technology was required that would enable monitoring of the network traffic and analysing anomalous behaviours. In other words, a technology that would cover the blind spots in the company's protection.
So the beginning revolved around the development of a unique technology. Is development still important for you today?
We would not be where we are today without the development of our technology. And if we want to remain one of the industry leaders, the innovation and development processes are absolutely crucial. That is why this year we are participating in the largest number of research and development projects in the company's history and we allocate more and more of our capacities to these projects.
When you became the CEO of the company in 2018, you set some ambitious goals. Were they changed in any way due to the current crisis?
Our long-term objective remains unchanged. We want to build a global technology company that provides attractive jobs to more than 800 people and is the global industry leader in the area of network traffic monitoring and security. However, we had to review our short-term goals. In January, we started another round of our expansion to the U.S. and we wanted to strengthen our branch office with new faces for sales and marketing departments. But we had to suspend and postpone these activities after two months.
Do you see any positives about the current situation?
We all know that some sectors, such as tourism, hospitality industry and airlines, are facing very severe problems and another economic recession is coming to hit us in the near future. On the other hand, there are some positive signs - it is now acceptable to organise online meetings with partners from Japan or America, which used to be widely rejected in the past. A number of tasks are being transferred to the digital form and I believe that looking back five or ten years from now, we will see that the current crisis significantly accelerated digitalisation, after all, it forced even our mothers and grandmothers to learn how to Skype.
The current crisis also brings some new challenges to your line of work because for some people it seems to be the 'ideal' time for various cyberattacks.
Yes, the coronavirus pandemic provides an opportunity for the attackers. In the recent months during the pandemic, a new and unusually strong wave of ransomware attacks struck. We could hear about the largest cases from the media, but the real extent of the attacks was much larger. Unfortunately, the reality of today is that the security solutions of companies cover only the necessary minimum, meaning an antivirus protection of the end stations, perimeter protection using firewall and infrastructure monitoring for checking of servers and key services availability. However, this creates a false sense of security. You need to realise that there are hundreds of devices communicating in your network without any control or security, such as CCTV cameras, printers, or X-ray or magnetic resonance scanners in some cases. We see the pandemic as an opportunity. Companies are learning that the IT infrastructure is crucial for their operation and they need to protect it.
Author: Kozubová Hana, Mgr.
Last modified: 2021-02-11T14:30:54