Identity protection is a huge and ever growing need in the knowledge economy. Ki, which was initially conceived as a hardware authentication token for password storage by its founders Priscilla Elora Sharuk and Antoine Jebara, is a Lebanese solution for identity protection. Executive caught up with Sharuk to see how the startup has progressed since we last met.
E When we met to evaluate Ki for the 2014 entrepreneurship list, you were about to travel to Helsinki for an accelerator program called Startup Sauna and were a bit worried about the Nordic temperatures there. How was your experience as a budding Lebanese entrepreneur there and what has happened since?
PES: I survived the cold and the program was wonderful. It is one thing to gain credibility here and an entirely different thing to get it abroad, especially when it comes to a field like identity protection. Seeing the concept given credibility by people who have worked in this space internationally and hear them say ‘you are onto something big’ gave me the guts to come back and say that this deserves to be done all-out. From that point I went full-time myki, which is how we renamed ourselves from Ki for legal incorporation reasons and also to make it more personal. The biggest thing that happened since was a massive pivot from hardware to software.
E In what way?
Ki was a hardware device, a token where I would swipe my fingerprint and select the service from a screen [for storing passwords]. Prototyping and editing the tokens here [in Lebanon] would take time and we found that it was very difficult [for logistics reasons]. In addition, our market research showed that people understood the value of the product but said they didn’t want to carry an extra token in their wallet. So we thought, why not take the same technology and incorporate it into the one item that you always have with you – your mobile phone.
E How did the change to a software solution impact your business proposition and costs?
We are now totally focused on enterprise software as a service – SAS. This represents different challenges from hardware solutions but it is definitely easier to manage the challenges on the software side rather than dealing with the manufacturing which is a very difficult thing to do, especially when you do not have enough talent around you meaning that you have to outsource [manufacturing]. Not having to produce hardware devices means that I am free.
E Production of the tokens in Lebanon was never on the table?
It was never an option.
E What were the main challenges that the shift has brought?
One of the biggest challenges that we noticed in the region is education. Once people see the product they ask, ‘when can I have it?’ But can I say that people understand the value and the risk of a cyber breach in MENA as much as they do in Europe and the United States? No.
It is one thing to gain credibility here and an entirely different thing to get it abroad
E Do you see limits of growth and is it your strategy to serve mainly the MENA market or do you want to go global?
No, we are not focused only on MENA and of course we want to go global. We would like to be the leading identity management platform on the market.
E You have succeeded in gaining equity participations, one of which was announced last month. Can you tell us who the partners are and how much capital they are injecting?
The investment is for $600,000 and comes from B&Y Ventures here [in Lebanon] and BECO Capital in Dubai.
E The participation is equal between the two?
Yes. We initially wanted to go with one investor but because Dubai is an important market for us, it was strategic for us to have an investment from Dubai and say this is an entry into a new market and access to a new network and more support for the team. Until last year, we were two [people], Antoine and myself. We have since grown to seven. So it is moving at a pretty rapid pace and when we talk about moving global, we are starting here as a test market and then into Dubai and then Europe, the United States and the rest of the world.
E Was the equity deal driven by Circular 331 or outside of the framework?
The B&Y part of the participation is part of the 331 framework; the BECO portion is not, because it is money coming in from Dubai.
E Do you already anticipate undertaking later funding rounds?
When doing that round we were looking at an 18-month runway but we already have two VCs who are saying, ‘When you raise again, we would like to be a part of it’. One of them is a Lebanese VC and the other is a Silicon Valley-based VC.
E Where do you see myki’s future?
A multi-billion dollar company.
E You want to be a multi-billion dollar company?
We will be a multi-billion dollar company.
E Moving along that road, where and at what valuation do you expect to be in five years?
That is a very big question. If you ask me where I will be in five years and ask me about a value, that is a question I cannot answer but I know that it is going to be massive. That is what I work for.