UTD looks to become a leader in cybersecurityJune 6, 2012
Jonathan Shapiro is convinced that the American way of life is under active cyberattack from around the globe.
He feels it's his patriotic duty to do something about it.
"There are foreign countries absolutely intent on stealing our wealth and our intellectual property," says the 57-year-old telecom entrepreneur who has taken on the mission of helping the University of Texas at Dallas build a center of excellence for cybersecurity. "The risks to our society are monumental. We are not prepared."
Shapiro worries about mayhem being unleashed on the United States, particularly on our infrastructure.
So does UTD President David Daniel. He's asked Shapiro to lead an interdisciplinary initiative aimed at making the school a world leader in cybersecurity education and research, and move UTD a big step closer to becoming a Tier One campus.
After all, what better way to show academic excellence than to have folks nationwide clamoring for your graduates?
Even in these times of stubborn unemployment, about 700,000 high-paying jobs wait for trained talent to fill them, says Shapiro. That number is mounting as more organizations realize no one is safe.
UTD also has designs on one day becoming Dallas-Fort Worth's first member of the Association of American Universities, an elite group of 60 research universities that garner about 60 percent of all federally funded research. The remaining 40 percent is divvied among the other 4,000 or so colleges and universities across the United States.
UTD's cybersecurity initiative involves every discipline at the school — math, technology, sciences, business and social sciences. The goal is to raise millions of dollars, hire faculty and researchers, recruit students and form collaborative projects with government agencies and companies that want solutions to clear and present dangers.
"The disease is moving epidemically, while the cure is moving bureaucratically," Shapiro says. "There is a huge shortage of skills to solve even basic problems, much less the advanced ones."
Daniel feels Shapiro is uniquely equipped to bring life and funds to such a center. "Jon is a great connector," says Daniel. "He connects between big-idea people and the I-have-a-problem-now folks."
Shapiro founded Alliance Systems Inc. in 1992 by peddling cast-off voice mail hardware from his garage. The startup grew into a manufacturer of open-communications systems with $100 million in sales, doing business in 70 countries. He sold Alliance in 2007 for $40 million.
The following year, he founded the Texas Institute, a nonprofit research center focused on advanced energy technology and policy research. The coalition of universities, government agencies and corporations works to create jobs and advance energy technology.
That's how he got to know Daniel and where Shapiro learned about the frightening potential of cyberattacks to crucial infrastructure, particularly the power grid. He felt North Texas could and should be the leader in training manpower and building an arsenal to both defend and offensively fight those threatening the nation.
"I presented the idea to David, and he said, 'Why don't you come help us use the university as a launching pad?' It seemed like a perfect fit."
Says Daniel: "I don't know that Dallas-Fort Worth is going to solve the world's pollution problems from burning coal, but we might be able to protect our critical infrastructures from cyberattacks. We want to make Dallas-Fort Worth the go-to place for companies and organizations that want solutions, talent and problem-solving."
UTD has been involved in cybersecurity for nearly a decade, with research totaling nearly $40 million for such organizations as the U.S. military, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, Raytheon Co. and Tektronix Inc.
But this work has been fragmented among the various disciplines — engineering, computer science, business and criminology. Shapiro's mission is to unify these resources, attract leading researchers and faculty, recruit students and link that intellectual prowess with the real needs of the government and private sectors, i.e. raise research dollars.
The initiative is also pulling in other areas of studies not usually associated with cybersecurity: economics, behavioral research and brain science.
Yes, UTD's Center for BrainHealth recently launched a project that is studying the brain activity of hackers, similar to one that it did on chess players.
Finding out what lights up the synapses of really good hackers will help identify and train cyberwarriors for our side. This is, after all, a battle of offense and defense. Some 30 countries have offensive cybersecurity, Shapiro says.
UTD already has several hundred undergraduate and graduate students taking courses related to cybersecurity. Six faculty and about 60 students are focused on it.
Daniel would like to triple the department in the next five to seven years.
Shapiro's goals are a bit more aggressive. "Part of my job is to raise enough funds so that we can recruit the talent that we need quicker than five years."
UTD also wants to offer professional certificate education, which would allow people already in the workplace to add cybersecurity to their résumés.
People with an undergraduate degree and some cybersecurity experience typically earn $80,000 to $90,000 a year, says Shapiro; those with a graduate degree, $150,000.
About a third of these jobs require U.S. citizenship for security clearance. These jobs pay even more but present a student recruiting challenge, says Shapiro. "If you look at what the engineering faculty and students are today, we have a tremendous number who are not American citizens, particularly at the masters and Ph.D. level."
Since joining UTD five months ago as a director of business development for the office of research, Shapiro has gotten encouraging words from Texas Instruments, Dell Computer, Deloitte, Oncor and ERCOT but hasn't signed any agreements yet.
Skip Moore, Deloitte's lead partner in technology, media and telecom, says such a center will draw on the region's technology and telecom heritage to tackle an evolving threat in an ever more connected world.
"The vision of the center to marry the academic resources at UTD with interests and expertise of our commercial companies is a natural," Moore says. "A robust cybercenter at UTD will allow us to make a difference and assume a leadership position on this global issue."
Mark Denissen, vice president of strategic marketing at TI, agrees. Security issues are growing by leaps and bounds as electronic devices proliferate beyond PCs and networks.
"More and more products such as smart utility meters, our automobiles, industrial controllers and smartphones need robust security," he says. "We believe that a cybersecurity center of excellence at UTD would further propel the university toward becoming a world-class research institution."
Shapiro and Daniel couldn't have said that better themselves.