Founders Spotlight: Dr Omaru Maruatona(Founder & CEO,Aiculus)

From playing football barefoot in the dusty streets of Bluetown township in Francistown as a young boy to founding and running a cybersecurity company with offices in Singapore and Australia, Dr. Maruatona's journey is a testament that you can do and achieve anything if you set your mind to it. In this interview, the Aiculus CEO takes us through his rather interesting and inspirational odyssey.

In your own words, tell us who Dr. Omaru Maruatona is

Omaru is the CEO of Aiculus. I was born in Botswana and moved to Australia for university then later for work. My mission is to build Aiculus as a global company that helps our customers to be proactive about cybersecurity risks. In founding Aiculus, I also hope to inspire anyone who identifies with who I am and my background.

Briefly take us through your journey from leaving Botswana for the first time to eventually founding a Singapore and Melbourne-based cybersecurity company

I was born in Francistown and after finishing my Form 5, I went to the University of Botswana in Gaborone for my tertiary studies. After spending two years at UB I got a scholarship from Debswana and came to Australia to study Software Engineering. After completion, I returned to Botswana to work for Debswana at Jwaneng Mine for 15 months after which I returned to Australia. I joined a bank and it happened that this particular bank was working with a university on artificial intelligence(AI) research. So I was assigned that project and for three years, I was researching and designing AI algorithms and applying them to a cybersecurity domain, specifically internet banking. After 3 years, I was awarded an industry PhD for this work.

I’ve also worked for global companies such as Computershare where I was a security engineer and  PwC Australia where I was a cybersecurity consultant. In 2017, I left PwC and started Aiculus. Two years later, we opened an office in Singapore and a few months after that, we were able to raise over P7 million in seed capital from which I built a team around the company and the rest, as they say, is history.

Your doctoral thesis was on “Internet Banking Fraud Detection Using Prudent Analysis” back in 2010 when concepts like internet banking, machine learning, etc were still pretty nascent. What was the inspiration for pursuing that?

Back then, those fields were viewed as theoretical concepts and not practical. As soon as I understood what Artifical Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) was, I was deeply intrigued because of the potential of these principles within technology. The abundance of mathematics in ML and AI appealed to me and being able to use mathematical concepts like calculus to design algorithms was of interest to me. 

Did you then believe or foresee those concepts becoming such a core part of tech as they are today?

Technically, these were challenging tasks but I could see them being a core part of tech in the future because, during my industry PhD, my sponsor was a bank who wanted me to give them algorithms they could use for internet banking security. So with that and being part of the implementation, I could identify a trend and the direction in which this technology was going.

After your PhD and working in corporate for a few years, what made you decide to pivot to becoming a tech entrepreneur?

It was always at the back of my mind really. I knew that the skills I had acquired during my industry PhD could sustain me if I started a niche technology company so this encouraged me to take that leap of faith. Four years later, I’m still happy with that decision and want to continue doing this for as long as I can while growing Aiculus in the process.

Please tell us more about your company,Aiculus

I founded Aiculus on the basis of AI and calculus, two concepts that make up my academic background, hence the name which is an amalgamation of the two. We basically use mathematical concepts and AI to provide value to our customers. We are a cyber-AI company meaning we specialize in cybersecurity and AI. Aiculus focuses on API security, the reason being that APIs really are the future. At Aiculus, we provide security in an adaptive manner, meaning that the security adapts as your use cases evolve. We have offices in Australia and Singapore as well as customers in Australia, Singapore and England.

What was the motivation for starting Aiculus

I once read that “People don’t change the world, rather companies change the world”. That really stuck with me. The journey of life involves finding meaning and purpose and for me, I decided that my purpose is to do something that helps my fellow human beings. So with that in mind, part of starting Aiculus was to show anyone out there that it can be done. But a key part of founding Aiculus was because there was a gap in the market and I leveraged my skills to exploit that market opportunity.

Aiculus’ tagline is “Security.Visibility.Privacy”. Please elaborate more on that

Most of our lives are now online and run by systems, so security is of paramount importance. With visibility, the idea that you can secure anything you can’t see is a fallacy. In short, you need to see something in order to secure it. So at Aiculus, we enable businesses to see their APIs through insights and predictive analysis. Regarding privacy, I believe Privacy is a fundamental consumer right and at Aiculus, we provide security while also considering user privacy. Privacy is also our differentiator because currently, technology vendors don't value privacy as much as we do.

The pandemic has increased online transactions which have meant more usage of APIs to facilitate these transactions through fintech solutions, etc. How has this impacted the need for API security?

A lot of businesses that had digital channels realised after COVID-19 struck that they needed to increase their digital channels. For example, I read that one of the major fashion brands here in Australia had a strategy where they aimed to make 65% of their sales from their physical stores and 35% from their digital channels. After COVID, they had to flip that strategy 180-degrees and this example shows the growth in importance of digital channels and this comes with the need for usage of APIs which consequently increases the demand for security of those APIs.

With fintech taking the world by storm, Botswana still does not have a regulatory framework to facilitate open banking by way of APIs. In your professional opinion, how important is a regulatory framework in facilitating innovation through the use of APIs?

I think it’s super important. Part of what we have done as Aiculus and which I am very proud of is that we got a grant from the Singapore financial regulator worth about P1.2 million to help them push out API specific regulatory guidelines. So now Singapore has API security monitoring guidelines which Aiculus helped devise. As Aiculus, we have done this before for Singapore and we remain open to working with the relevant authorities in Botswana to help set up the same for the country.

Aiculus has been a part of numerous incubators and accelerators over the years. How important have these been in growing the company to where it is now?

We have been a part of two accelerators. In 2017 when I started Aiculus, I was in the CyRise accelerator in Australia and then in 2019, I was accepted into the ICE71 accelerator in Singapore. For me, these two accelerators provided the bits and pieces about running a business that I did not have. I started Aiculus with the barebones and though I had the technical know-how, I needed the skills on how to run a business and the accelerators provided that. They also added a level of accountability in that I had to properly define my business goals and track them. 

Lastly and probably most importantly, they also introduced and connected me with investors and potential customers. For example, in Singapore, we were able to raise a considerable amount of capital at seed stage from venture capitalists and this to me is a testament to the value of accelerators in that you meet VCs who understand what you are doing, see where you are going and they can tag along and help you along the way.

Funding is also another pain point facing Botswana tech startups. Last year, Aiculus managed to raise US$670 000 (about P7.5 million) in early-stage venture funding. What tips can you share with local tech startups looking to get funding from international venture capital firms?

First, I’d have to say that it is hard to raise money from a VC if they do not know you. The first way that a VC knows you is through your pitch deck. The thing about a pitch deck though is that it is read by an individual who has their own bias about what’s pretty and what is not. So if that deck is not graphic designed in a smooth, classy and easily communicative way, it’s probably not going to get read.

So with that, I would say it would be more effective if you are introduced to the VC you want to pitch by someone who already has a relationship with the VC because VCs get so many pitch emails and are unfortunately not very likely to give yours the time of day. Another thing is that your business idea needs to be scalable and internationally viable because unfortunately, the Botswana market on its own is just not big enough to sway most VCs in your favour.

As a Motswana in the diaspora, what has been your experience running a business abroad? 

I remember when I was fundraising, with some of the VCs I went to see to ask for money, I was the first black person to approach them particularly in the fields of AI and cybersecurity. Being the first person in anything means you take the hit in order to help pave the way for others who will follow. At the same time though, I have also met very supportive people who have helped me and Aiculus to get where we are today.

Another thing is that it is very costly to run a business, particularly in Australia looking at the labour laws and all the compliance requirements that come with them. However, these are challenges I fully embrace and am prepared to deal with on a daily basis to ensure that Aiculus keeps growing and moving forward.

If you have faced any challenges, how have you been able to surmount them?

Through persistence and grit. I have been in situations where I was the underdog so many times that now, being an underdog is not a challenge but an opportunity because I figured that when you are down, the only way to go is up. I also tend to persist over a problem and never accept defeat. 

Lastly, what advice can you give to local entrepreneurs who have dreams of starting a global tech company like Aiculus?

The good thing is that now is the time for technology, so the time is right. If you have an idea, bet on yourself and just go for it using whatever means you have at your disposal. If you persevere and are methodical with how you solve the problem, you will eventually get there.

I’d also point out that as a country, we are very small in number and starting a business whose goal is to serve 2 and half million people might not be bold enough. I’d like to see businesses that aim to serve the world. There is nothing wrong with starting off with Botswana but it would be wise to eventually aim to expand your reach to the SADC region, then Africa, then the rest of the world.

I would also like to see more government and private sector involvement in helping local tech businesses expand through schemes and grants. A reliable and affordable internet infrastructure is also critical to facilitate the adoption and usage of technology products.

NB:This interview has been slightly edited for clarity

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