Singapore must mirror USA on cyber procurement, says Unicorn CEO

By Joshua Chambers

Interview with the Chief Executive Officer of Acronis, Serguei Beloussov.

Some people are born Singaporean; others choose to become one. The latter is true of Serguei Beloussov, Russian-born founder of cybersecurity unicorn Acronis. “I needed to open an office somewhere; I opened one here because it looked more convenient. And then I stayed here,” he says with a shrug.

In 1995 Beloussov came to the island, aged just 24, to run his cyber security business, and became a citizen in 2001 because of the connected, easy business environment and the safe streets for his children. “You can have a global business based in Singapore - that was always good,” he adds, looking at the sea from the window of his 30th floor office.

But there are still things his adopted home can improve, he thinks, particularly when it comes to cyber security. The United States, for instance, has built a thriving cyber security industry through a series of procurement reforms that favour local companies. Should Singapore consider doing the same?

Procure like the Americans

If you look historically at the cyber security industry, Beloussov says, the vast majority of firms have come from the United States.

That’s because the US Government gives preference to its own cyber companies from research funding right through to tendering. “You do joint research projects, you share expenses with private business, you share intellectual property with private business, and visa versa,” he says.

This does not mean that the Singapore Government should avoid working with international vendors, however. Just that if they want to sell to government, “they should be present with their research and development so we have access to their expertise. If not, then we should give preference to those who do.”

That’s not the current situation, he believes. Government will ultimately buy a product based on its price and the quality, but with large American multinational companies their best talent will remain in Silicon Valley, not Singapore. “We cannot just be users of of cyber security, we have to be creators of cyber security, we have to at least understand what it does,'' he stresses. That comes from the vendors putting their research operations in Singapore in return for access for lucrative government contracts.

Security threats to Singapore

The key cyber threats Singapore faces, Beloussov says, are those that threaten its reputation as a safe haven. “Singapore is neutral, so in many ways it is very challenging to maintain its security level and protection level.”

This makes the threats in the city state “much more sophisticated threats that are related to people who want to show that Singapore is not safe and neutral”. They will be from organised crime or nation states who benefit from disruption. “We’ve seen these threats happening in the past 12 months where we’ve had several major infiltrations here”.

The Smart Nation initiative also increases vulnerabilities. Human capital is therefore vital to ensure that security keeps up with the pace of innovation. “We need to do more on educating the citizens. I think cyber security should be a subject in every school,” he says. “Children are not concerned about the fact they can open a Tinder account and Instagram accounts, and look what can happen with the device”.

The Singapore life

Singapore has been good to Beloussov, he notes. The schooling system is “wonderful”, he says, and it’s possible for him to easily travel to Acronis customers from Papua New Guinea to Silicon Valley.

Just in September, Acronis hit Unicorn status after a $147m funding round led by Goldman Sachs. They specialise in backup and cyber protection in the case of an attack - an increasingly important area given the shocking hack of SingHealth last year.

Beloussov is proud to be Singaporean, but he’d like to see a few changes. The Government should work closer with industry on cyber training and building human capital, he notes. American-style procurement could boost local industry, and build more cyber unicorns in the years to come.