Wales has given rise to a wide diversity of technology companies, from cybersecurity to life sciences. Several of its most innovative start-ups were in Dubai recently as part of Expo 2020, where they met and interacted with companies in the UAE and the wider MENA region.
Among them was Awen Collective, which offers critical infrastructure organisations better visibility into their operational networks and so decrease cyber risk. The software start-up works to increase the resiliency of critical infrastructure such as water, energy and transport systems, and counts among its clients the UK’s Ministry of Defence.
“One of our software programs, Dot, helps industrial enterprises identify potential cyber threats across their facilities, whether these are modern or legacy systems, and whether or not they are connected to the internet,” says founder Daniel Lewis.
Many critical infrastructure facilities – such as oil and gas pipelines or water reserves – are sited in remote locations and may be visited infrequently by maintenance teams. As such, operators are often only alerted to cyber threats and vulnerabilities after an operating technology system goes down. Awen’s innovative solutions help monitor such facilities for anomalies and atypical behaviour that could potentially represent a malicious attack. “Most existing solutions require internet connectivity to be able to monitor the installation and build a picture of what is normal,” Lewis says. “But in the vast majority of cases, industrial organisations are simply not set up that way – internet connectivity may not be possible at a remote facility, for example. Dot’s USP is that it can also be used in parts of a network that are never, or rarely, connected to the internet.”
Within weeks of a three-day visit to the UAE, Lewis has already secured a regional partner for his cybersecurity start-up. Awen recently signed a partnership agreement with regional telecoms and security systems integrator 3W Networks, he says over Zoom from his office in Caerphilly, Wales, visibly excited to be sharing the news.
“This was my first trip to Dubai, and we previously didn’t have any clients or partners in the region. It was a very successful trip, not just in terms of securing a local partner but also because quite a few other things that have come out of this as well – although they are at a much earlier stage than with 3W.”
Awen Collective was part of a trade delegation of nine Welsh tech businesses at Expo 2020 this February. It was supported by the Welsh Government as it sought to further strengthen ties with the UAE and wider MENA region along with other global markets.
The small nation, one of four that make up the United Kingdom, boasts a wide diversity of industries, from technology and life sciences to tourism and renewable energy.
It is home to several technology clusters, including the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster, CSconnected, Life Sciences Hub Wales, focused on innovation in healthcare and well-being, and the North and South Wales Cyber Security Clusters, which comprise the UK’s largest cyber ecosystem.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Welsh government has provided over £2.5 billion (Dh11.3 billion) in funding to Welsh businesses. In 2020, despite the pandemic, Welsh start-ups and scale-ups secured £129 million in funding, a record for the country. Beyond high-growth companies, an unprecedented 19,453 businesses were also incorporated in Wales that year, according to a report from research platform Beauhurst and the Development Bank of Wales.
As part of its role in promoting Welsh businesses within the country and overseas, the Welsh government runs 21 international offices in 12 countries, supporting businesses with export development and in-market activity.
Damon Rands, founder of Cardiff-based cybersecurity company Wolfberry, was also part of the Welsh delegation to Expo 2020. The support opened doors that would have been harder to go through otherwise, he says.
“As a business based in Wales, we have always been given a platform, locally, nationally in the UK, and internationally. I was on a cybersecurity panel at Expo 2020, for example – to do that on our own would have taken a lot of effort. But at Expo, which was such a great networking event for the world’s business community, we were talking to businesses in the Middle East, in India, even other companies in the UK,” he says, adding that he and his peers are now being introduced to potential business partners in the US. “We benefit from research into new markets, from introductions, from support – a platform really.”
Wolfberry helps organisations around the world in a wide range of sectors to protect their processes and data from internal and external cybersecurity risks. It achieves this through managed services, penetration testing services, cyber essentials certification, phishing simulations, ransomware preparation and recovery consultancy as well as active threat detection and vulnerability scanning. Recently, Wolfberry supported a company in the Dubai International Financial Centre on governance frameworks that enabled entry into the US market, Rands says.
He adds his company has benefited from being based in Wales. The country’s proximity to the UK’s biggest private- and public-sector organisations and its links to Europe and the rest of the world certainly helps. But the business ecosystem is strengthened by several top-tier universities, including those at Cardiff and Swansea. They provide research and development and turn out market-ready professionals at a time when the advanced technology industry is facing a severe shortage of talent. Similarly, a clutch of innovation hubs allows spin-outs and start-ups can test and incubate fresh ideas.
“That ecosystem means it’s a brilliant moment to grow a cybersecurity or a technology company in Wales right now,” Rands says.
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