7 Cities That Could Become the World’s Cybersecurity Capital

Apr 06, 2017

The film industry has Hollywood, the banks have Wall Street, and tech has Silicon Valley. But so far the fast-growing cybersecurity industry—slated to pull in more than $100 billion a year by 2020—has no obvious place to call home.

If you believe in the theory of economic clusters, popularized in a 1998 HBR article by professor Michael Porter, the cyber business is exactly the sort of industry that could give rise to a regional hub or cluster—a "Cybercon Valley" if you will.

Clusters, recall, represent a geographic region where an intangible mix of people, education, and economic factors create an interdependent network of businesses and institutions. As those ties become stronger, it becomes virtually impossible for a competing city to disrupt or replace the cluster. That's why, despite innumerable efforts to copy them, there's still only one Silicon Valley or Hollywood.

What makes the race to build a regional cyber center so interesting is that there are all sorts of places right now claiming they have the secret sauce to win the crown. But so far, there is no obvious winner.

If a dominant cyber hub does emerge, it will likely have most or all of the following attributes: proximity to a research university; a large population of hackers or military types; access to angel and venture capital; a culture of cooperation and entrepreneurship.

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To figure out which cities fit this bill, Fortune talked to investors, entrepreneurs, and academics. Based on those conversations, here are seven leading contenders: five in the United States and two abroad.

The choices here are subjective, of course, and it's possible a place not on this list could emerge as the winner. (Other names that have come up in discussion include the likes of Seattle, San Antonio, and Huntsville, Ala.).

But for now, here are the seven cities most destined to become the capital of the cybersecurity industry.

Peachtree Street in Atlanta
Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia.Richard Cummins—Getty Images

Atlanta

The name of Georgia's biggest city came up again and again in discussions about serious cyber tech centers. Its boosters pointed to the presence of Georgia Tech, a vibrant corporate and funding eco-system, and local champions like Tom Noonan, who one VC dubbed the "godfather of Atlanta's cyber-scene."

The city also has some remarkable companies that are not named Coca-Cola or CNN. These include Pindrop—a fast-growing startup backed by the likes of GV and Andreessen Horowitz—which uses sophisticated analytics to root out phone fraud.

USA, Washington, D.C., Aerial photograph of the city with Dupont Circle
Washington DC, Dupont Circle.Westend61—Getty Images

Washington D.C.

"I’ve voted with my dollars and feet on two places that have better a chance than Silicon Valley [of being the leading cyber center]," says David Cowan, a well-known partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, while talking up the benefits of the D.C. area. (The other place, according to Cowan is Tel Aviv.)

The obvious advantages include proximity to the defense industry and to elite military talent with the hacking skills in demand at many cyber companies. Meanwhile, local governments—like nearby Howard County—are flexing their political pull to make the region the cyber center of gravity.

Not everyone buys D.C.'s cyber-story, however. Martin Casado, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, cautions the area is tilted heavily to "people from government who want to sell to government," which complicates an organic business ecosystem.

Downtown San Francisco Cranes and Highway
Downtown San Francisco, California.JasonDoiy—iStockphoto/Getty Images

Silicon Valley

Casado, the D.C. skeptic, is a bigger booster of his home turf. He and several entrepreneurs made the case that Silicon Valley is destined to be the world's cyber capital for the very same reasons it is the world's tech capital: its unique mix of capital, entrepreneurship, elite developers, and tech geniuses.

"Having created companies in Silicon Valley, I can say starting a company here is like getting a job somewhere else," Casado says. "I jumped easily from Stanford to starting a company. From HR to finance to legal to funding—that whole network exists. It's such a self-fulfilling ecosystem."

Casado downplays the  absence of a major military presence in the Valley, saying it's not an essential ingredient for a cyber cluster. The presence of next generation cyber titans, such as Tanium and Palantir, suggests he might be right.

Tel Aviv Coastline - Aerial view
Tel Aviv, Israelliorpt—iStockphoto/Getty Images

Tel Aviv

Israel's capital is another place that came up in every single discussion of leading cybersecurity centers. Tel Aviv is a powerhouse in other tech fields, including ad-tech, but is especially notable in cyber thanks to big names Check Point and Forescout as well as Team8, a security-focused incubator.

Many people attribute Tel Aviv's cyber prowess to its universal military service, which includes the famous SigInt and code-cracking outfit known as Unit 8200. According to Cowan, the unit creates a "great flow of talent that produces 1000 cyber warriors every year."

Pedestrian crossing
Faneuil Hall and Custom House Tower in Boston, MA.Maremagnum—Getty Images

Boston

Boston is another place that comes up when people talk about cyber centers—though its place on the list may have more to do with past glories than present reality. The area helped to pioneer the cybersecurity industry in the 1980's with the likes of RSA (now owned by Dell), but lost momentum amid the general ascendance of the west coast tech scene.

Still, the Boston area's research prowess remains world class, and has produced some newer cybersecurity stars, including IPO-bound Carbon Black and the software analysis firm Veracode, which was acquired last month by CA Technologies.

Workers walking to work through the city.
London, England.Ezra Bailey—Getty Images

London

Britain is known for its top-notch intelligence services, including GCHQ, which has helped to make London a player in the cybersecurity industry. The city's role as a global financial and diplomatic center also serves to support a cyber ecosystem, though it lacks the easy access to venture capital that is fueling the U.S. industry.

Its notable companies include fast-growing Darktrace, which helps companies track online intruders, and Digital Shadows, which scours the internet for digital risks to firms.

Augusta, Georgia
Downtown Augusta, GeorgiaSeanPavonePhoto—iStockphoto/Getty Images

Augusta, Ga.

This small city is a dark horse when it comes to winning the race to be a cyber capital. But while some scoff at the idea of Augusta emerging as a major player (skeptics point to the city's out-of-the-way location and small size), it does have some distinct advantages—most notably nearby Fort Gordon, which the Pentagon designated as the new home of the Army's Cyber Command.

Brooks Keel, the President of Augusta University, says the town is preparing for “cyber tsunami” of approximately 4000 families, and the school will provide complementary  education to support this. Meanwhile, Augusta is hoping a $50 million cyber grant from the state and presence of firms like Unisys and Ratheon will lead to a bonanza of spin-offs and startups.

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So what city will take the cyber capital crown? Possibly none of them. Or to put it in a more positive way, all of them.

That's because, as the venture capitalists Cowan and Casado pointed out, the cybersecurity industry might continue to flourish without a dominant region. In their views, the industry is not like Hollywood, which requires a specific economic infrastructure to make a movie, but one in which successful firms can emerge from all over.

"I’ve seen good cyber companies built everywhere," says Cowan. That amounts to good news for all of the cities on the list, and many others as well.

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