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Alphabet’s Latest Moonshot Graduate Is Tackling Cybersecurity

January 24, 2018, 7:00 PM UTC

The research lab at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is known for incubating some of the most far-out ideas in tech. Self-driving cars, contact lens that measure blood sugar, and giant balloons that beam Internet connections to everyone below are just some of the so-called moonshots that have emerged from the secretive skunkworks, known as X.

When projects show enough promise as potential businesses, they “graduate” from being mere experiments into independent companies. Only a handful has ever done so.

The latest, announced on Wednesday, is Chronicle, a previously undisclosed moonshot in computer security that aims to simplify the lives of cybersecurity and IT professionals. It sifts through giant swaths of data to keep out hackers and detect security vulnerabilities.

The technology is a departure for X, which has generally focused on ideas like burrito-delivering drones that seem like they were torn from the pages of sci-fi film scripts. Computer security, though important, is not nearly as sexy.

However, Astro Teller, X’s leader, insists that cybersecurity has been on the backburner for several years at X. Creating research projects to tackle the planet’s biggest problems that can be spun into independent companies has always been the goal, not just creating out-of-this world technology for the sake of grabbing headlines.

The fact that so many big companies like Target, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and insurance giant Anthem are being hacked proves that “Cyber security is one of the biggest problems in the world,” Teller said.

When Google created X eight years ago, X staff members would repeat the phrase “atoms, not just bits,” reflecting their emphasis on futuristic hardware, Teller said. The marching orders changed a bit, however, in 2015 when Google’s leadership created the Alphabet holding company to better manage Google’s sprawling business empire and focus on projects that have a better chance of turning a profit in the future.

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“That restriction that we just work in hardware didn’t make as much sense.” Teller said about the Alphabet era.

To lead Chronicle, X recruited Stephen Gillett, a former chief operating officer of security giant Symantec who has a long background in corporate technology. In 2010, when holding a similar job at Starbucks, Fortune selected Gillett for its 40 under 40 list of young movers and shakers, partly for helping bring free Wi-Fi to Starbuck’s cafes.

Chronicle’s other co-founders include some of Google’s top security engineers who have created the technology that helps protect the search engine’s vast computer systems from hackers. Besides selling security software to businesses, Chronicle will also oversee Alphabet’s existing VirusTotal security business, which Google acquired in 2012 and then folded into X in 2015 when Alphabet was formed, Gillett said.

Gillett declined to comment about how Chronicle’s cybersecurity software works, making the still-unreleased technology impossible to compare with rival software from others. But he said that “several Fortune 500 companies” are testing its software, although he declined to name those firms.

Gillett said the software is intended to solve a common complaint of IT and security professionals—being overwhelmed by the deluge of security alerts they receive each day warning of potential bugs and vulnerabilities. Their lives would be easier if they could filter out all the false alarms and concentrate on only the most important ones. By using machine learning to sift through both current and old corporate data, Chronicle’s software is supposed to show only the most significant threats.

Forrester security analyst Chase Cunningham said that many cybersecurity companies are using buzzwords like machine learning and artificial intelligence to hawk their software. But he says it’s challenging to separate the hype from the reality if companies merely say their technology is the best without explaining why or how.

Bill Coughran, a venture capitalist with Sequoia Capital and a former Google senior vice president of engineering, said the sheer number of security startups receiving funding makes it difficult for any one of them to stand out. Furthermore, the software must do many tasks well, not just one.

One way for Chronicle to win customers would be to undercut competitors on price, Coughran said, because “there are a number of security products that are too expensive.” Being part of the Alphabet empire and its vast wealth could help Chronicle do so.

And while it may be unusual for X to have graduated a moonshot that is focused on corporate IT, it is, in fact, aligned with Google’s strategy to become a business technology giant. Increasingly, Google is investing in things like cloud computing and workplace software in an effort to challenge tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon, and not just focusing on its core search business and giant Internet balloons.