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New database startup Sqrrl raises $2 million, relocates from D.C. to Cambridge

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 20, 2012 07:42 AM

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It sounds like the outline of an espionage thriller: a team of top techies from the NSA vanish from the intelligence agency's Maryland campus, collect $2 million, and resurface at a "hackerspace" in Cambridge. Their objective: marketing a new, ultra-secure and super-scalable database technology, originally created within the walls of the NSA, to large corporations.

But it's also the true-life story of the latest "big data" startup to get funding from Massachusetts venture capital firms. It's called Sqrrl, and the founding team is still in the process of relocating from the Washington, D.C. area. They'll be operating out of the new hack/reduce space on the edge of Kendall Square. The $2 million in funding comes from Cambridge-based Atlas Venture, one of the underwriters of hack/reduce, and Matrix Partners of Waltham.

Sqrrl is planning to sell and support its own commercial version of the open source database software known as Accumulo. Accumulo has an interesting history: it was originally built at the NSA, and based on a data storage architecture called BigTable that Google created to store vast amounts of information — like Google Earth's satellite images of the entire planet — across multiple data centers. Somewhat amazingly, the government decided to release the code for Accumulo to the open source community, so that others could use it and improve it. "That's a growing trend in government, but it's still not exactly commonplace," says Sqrrl CEO Oren Falkowitz.

antrod-lynch.jpgSo what makes Sqrrl so special? First, the Accumulo database can handle enormous amounts of data, says Antonio Rodriguez of Matrix Partners: "You can imagine the volume of data the NSA was working with, like gathering records of every purchase of fertilizer everywhere in the world to try to identify people who might be up to no good." Second, says Falkowitz, is a "cell-level" approach to security that can grant or refuse access to individual elements of information — like a Social Security number or medical diagnosis — within the database. "That means that multiple users or applications at a company can have multiple levels of access to the data," he explains. And third, Rodriguez says, "Sqrrl is the only company trying to commercialize Accumulo, which we think can be a powerful competitor to HBase." (That's another kind of open source database software, used by companies like Facebook.)

The Sqrrl team left the NSA only last month, but earlier in the year they'd begun talking with investors and prospective customers, mainly in the healthcare and financial services industries. Falkowitz says, "We only got about halfway through our pitch with Chris Lynch at Atlas when he said, 'I get it." (Lynch, pictured on the left with Rodriguez of Matrix, was previously chief executive of the database company Vertica.) Falkowitz says they had offers to invest from several VC firms, but "we felt like the academic community in Boston would allow us to recruit the best talent, and it's exciting to be part of the growing big data community here."

Plus, Lynch made it clear that he wouldn't invest in the company if it remained in the D.C. area. "Being up here increases their probability of success," he says. "I told them, 'I don't care if you have 100 term sheets [from other VC firms offering to invest]. If you want this syndicate [Atlas and Matrix], you're moving to Boston.'" (Lynch sprinkled in a little profanity so they knew he was serious.) This is Lynch's first investment since joining Atlas in May.

Lynch is traveling New York this week with the Sqrrl team to meet with prospective customers on Wall Street. Falkowitz says the company is hiring in marketing, sales, and engineering.

The company name, incidentally, is a reference to a squirrel's habit of stashing his food away someplace safe. "We found that people were creating multiple databases, hiding their data away in different places so it would be secure, sort of like squirrels hide their acorns," Falkowitz explains. "Since we allow for multiple levels of access to the data, you can collapse all your different databases into one."

(Update: Here's Lynch's blog post welcoming Sqrrl to town.)

sqrrl-team.jpg

(In the photo above: Sqrrl team members Phil Eberhardt, Ely Kahn, Chris McCubbin, Oren Falkowitz, John Vines, Adam Fuchs, Luke Brassard. All but Kahn were employees of the NSA before joining Sqrrl.)

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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