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Monday, 3 April, 2000, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
nCipher targets web security

If entrepreneurship is a disease, Alex van Someren has it bad.

"I am, for my sins, a serial entrepreneur," he laughs.

In 1996, the pony-tailed thirty-something set up web security firm nCipher with his brother Nicko.

As internet security continues to make front page news, nCipher sells a piece of hardware which it says makes data secure without slowing down your computer.

Nicko van Someren boasts a PhD and is what Alex calls a "cryptogenius".

His brother makes the deals and so far these deals have helped make nCipher a $100m (62m) company.

The Cambridge entrepreneurs

The brothers' love affair with computers began when they were teenagers.

When Alex van Someren was 14, he wrote to local computer company Acorn and asked them for a job.

Later that year, he turned up on their door and they gave him a computer, then worth about 200.

Acorn co-founder Hermann Hauser - now a venture capitalist - said to the teenage Alex. "If you want to be a smart kid, prove it."

Alex van Someren says now: "They gave me a chance when I didn't have credentials. They gave me a chance to get into the computer industry, by taking a risk, by giving me a free computer."

Alex and Nicko previously set up and ran a web browser software business called ANT.

Unlocking nCipher

Once the two of them had the idea for nCipher, Alex bought a book called writing the 24-hour business plan - "no joke", he laughs - and then set about impressing a US venture capital firm.

"I didn't realise until much later how lucky we are," he says.

Alex describes himself as a serial entrepreneur

The 24-hour business plan worked.

"What they really invest in is not the idea you have, but the people. If you can give a good presentation and show you are really passionate about what you do," he said, explaining the secret of impressing venture capitalists.

Last August, the company secured a second round of financing worth $8.25m (4.9m), valuing the company at over $100m (62m).

The company is tipped by pundits to float later this year.

Hardware not software

What nCipher claims to do is encrypt information faster and more securely than anyone else.

"It has been accepted for over 30 years that hardware is essential for adequate security of key data. In the rush to electronic commerce that has been forgotten by many implementers of e-commerce systems," Alex van Someren said.

Its main rivals are Rainbow Technologies, Compaq and Hewlett Packard.

It holds one key advantage over its US competitors. While nCipher can sell its products in the US, strict US export laws stop them exporting their goods.

Hence even a Hewlett Packard branch in the Far East uses an nCipher product. "How nice is that," Alex van Someren chortles.

nCipher cannot rely on this export anomaly remaining in place for ever but in the event of its US market drying up, its European sales are growing, Alex van Someren says.

nCipher inside

His enthusiasm for what he is doing is complete but do you sell body and soul to get those share options?

He walks his kids to school and once they have gone to bed at 9pm, gets on the phone to the US until 2am.

"My wife would tell you I work pretty hard. It doesn't have to represent itself by how early you get in and by how late you stay," he says.

"It is total tunnel vision. If something gets in the way, we will find a way around it. We are actually doing something useful. It lets people enjoy using the internet more. If I had some kind of completely vapid goal, it wouldn't work," he says.

Eton-educated Alex freely admits to having a chip on his shoulder because he didn't go to university. He even lists as heros entrepreneurs that don't have degrees, such as Alan Sugar and Richard Branson.

"You see job adverts, which say you must have a degree. You can still be smart even if you don't have a degree," he says.

He wants nCipher to be open to staff, who have potential even they don't have letters after their name, much like Acorn was to him.

Indeed the one thing that could slow nCipher down is not being able to find the right staff, though they have a ready supply of Cambridge graduates they can tap into.

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See also:

10 Feb 00 | Business
How the web was wounded
10 Feb 00 | Business
US pledges net safety measures
10 Feb 00 | Business
Beating the hacker attack
11 Jan 00 | Business
Fresh web security scare
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