Security firms leading the way for UK IT

The CEO of MessageLabs was named Technology Entrepreneur of the Year last night, confirming the vitality of Britain's IT security industy

The security industry has been at the leading edge of IT innovation and growth in recent years and two of the UK's leading security sector CEOs last night did battle for the title of Technology Entrepreneur of the Year at a top London awards night.

For many the contest was effectively a two-horse race between SurfControl CEO Steve Purdham and MessageLabs CEO Ben White who both saw their companies hit the headlines and grow the bottom lines last year riding a wave of phishing, spam, spyware and viruses.

White scooped the award on the night but the presence of both on the shortlist served as an affirmation of the health of the UK security industry.

Richard Holway, director at analyst house Ovum Holway, speaking at the Innovation and Growth Summit before the event's prize-giving, described security as "the flavour of the decade".

"The top companies in terms of growth have all been related to security in one form or other," said Holway.

And opportunity — and timing — certainly play a part. White told ZDNet UK sister site silicon.com: "Recent developments in the world of email security have placed today's businesses firmly in the firing line. Criminal involvement in the virtual world has accelerated at a worrying pace and as if these developments aren't worrying enough, organisations also need to juggle the technology risks with the need for compliance."

It's certainly been a good time to be involved in security but that could be said of many firms who weren't honoured at these awards.

Simply rising with the tide does not mean a company will thrive and nor does it prepare a company for any future decline in the market, said Holway.

"You can be pretty average, working for an average company and you could do quite well for yourself, given a rising tide lifts all ships," he said.

But the emphasis at this event was not about resting on laurels or going with the flow and SurfControl and MessageLabs' growth has certainly been above average.

"If you concentrate on the average then you become average," said Purdham, whose company recently made its latest declaration of intent to keep growing and innovating with the acquisition of intellectual property from threat management firm Apreo.

Purdham described that move as "innovation at a commercial level but not at a technology level".

"We shouldn't forget that innovation is also in how you build the business together," he added.

Of course where security is concerned innovation becomes a strange term. At its most appealing the ideal of innovation is to give people something they didn't know they wanted. In security terms it is perhaps giving people something they begrudgingly need.

Purdham said: "Innovation in our environment is constant even though it isn't very sexy."

And White is certainly proud of his company's innovation — spotting early-on the market for managed security services.

"MessageLabs was set up to offer Internet-level email protection as a managed service. At that time nobody else had considered this as an option."

"This was a true discontinuous innovation, and today our innovation continues apace."

Certainly there are predictions of a continued move towards the managed services model but there are also advances into that space by the big hitters in the security world — such as Symantec and McAfee.

However, Purdham believes security is one area where smaller companies, or mid-tier at least — he mentions SurfControl, MessageLabs, Checkpoint, Netscreen — are doing much of the innovation.

At the top of the scale are those companies who will always favour acquisition and Purdham believes there will be a great deal more acquisition activity before this year is out. He also believes the number of similarities between MessageLabs and SurfControl may increase further.

"The biggest difference between us and MessageLabs is we're publicly traded and they're not."

Certainly a large, privately-owned technology company which is profitable and cash-rich is likely to get some admiring looks from would-be suitors. However, whatever the future holds — and speculation of an IPO or acquisition will now be a permanent fixture on the landscape for MessageLabs — White appears unprepared to relinquish control.

"Businesses like MessageLabs are built to last, not around some trend or fashion," he said.

"We intend to develop one of the world’s most compelling IT brands, not something that will be here today and gone tomorrow."