Boise State students compete to solve cybersecurity challenges

college of innovation and design glassroom
Elise Ledesma | The Arbiter

Boise State University’s Venture College challenged Idaho students to solve real-world cybersecurity problems and compete for cash awards to develop their solutions.

In 2004, Congress declared October Cybersecurity Awareness Month to encourage careers in cybersecurity and to promote awareness and actions to protect citizens, businesses and national security from cyberattacks. Yet thousands of cybersecurity job openings remain unfilled.

“The cybersecurity industry across the nation at last count is short about 750,000 job openings that are going unfilled,” said Ed Vasko, director of the Institute for Pervasive Cybersecurity at Boise State University. “In Idaho it’s about 5200 to 5400 that are going unfilled.” 

Vasko spent 30 years developing cybersecurity companies and joined Boise State University in 2020 to teach and train workforce-ready cybersecurity specialists. He built a student-staffed, faculty-mentored work force called Cyberdome, which aims to serve rural communities that could not afford to monitor and maintain cyber threat detection.

Part of his vision included helping students to develop new ideas and executable plans to solve cybersecurity challenges.

This is precisely the goal of the Cybersecurity Entrepreneur Challenge: to promote interest in cybersecurity to meet current and future needs of businesses, schools and government.

Participants and industry mentors met at the opening event for the 2022 Cybersecurity Entrepreneur Challenge on Oct. 10.

“Businesses have a need to enhance their cybersecurity, and so they seek cyber-minded students to provide ideas for that,” said Joe Capps, president of the Boise State University cybersecurity club called C^4.

college of innovation and design glassroom
[Photo of the College of Innovation and Design, located on the second floor of the Albertsons Library.]
Elise Ledesma | The Arbiter

Micron Technology and PlexTrac, a cybersecurity company, sponsored the event which was hosted by Boise State University, Venture College (College of Innovation and Design) and the Institute for Pervasive Cybersecurity.

Faculty and industry partners propose seven cybersecurity problem statements. Fifteen participants in seven separate teams registered to compete in a reverse pitch format for the $20,000 in cash prizes to develop and launch startups to implement their technical solutions and business plans addressing the problem statements.

In 10 days, teams must research the market, evaluate existing solutions and their competitors, then devise a viable plan to pitch in a four-minute presentation to judges. Vasko stressed important elements of a successful pitch include business awareness and credibility.

“What you’re gonna get from the Venture College through this process is a lot of the business side. Go research your market. Go find your TAM (Total Addressable Market). Go research your competitors. I wanted to make certain that we were passing along industry awareness as well.”

The shortage of cybersecurity workers demands innovative solutions. One of the problem statements for the Cybersecurity Entrepreneurship Challenge, “Reduce the Dependency on People for Cyber Related Incidents,” may address shortages of cybersecurity-trained people through automation, artificial intelligence and new hardware/software inventions to combat cyberattacks.

Last year, TAC Security — pitched by students Tatum Jones, Alex Mitchell and Cameron White — addressed the manpower problem statement, envisioning a system to protect small businesses that don’t have cybersecurity by developing detection of both physical and cyber attacks, with notification of the business owner by cell phone application. Jones and Mitchell attend Boise State University; White attends College of Western Idaho. They won the inaugural Cybersecurity Entrepreneur Challenge in 2021.

“For more than a decade, there has been a call for the convergence of physical and cybersecurity systems,” Mitchell said. After further research and discussions with additional consultants, “they were the ones that told us if we were really actually able to create something like this, it could be potentially revolutionary in the security realm.” 

TAC Security shifted their focus to compete in the Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge and placed third with a system combining detection of hardware access attacks, cyberattacks and notification. 

“CEC was a massive kickstart. The resources and mentors available to us absolutely astonished me, as someone walking in with zero business experience,” White said. “Even though I am unable to compete this year, I have encouraged all of my classmates to go out for it because it was such a great learning experience and networking opportunity.”

Mitchell studies information technology management and plans to work in cybersecurity after graduating next semester. 

White studies cybersecurity at College of Western Idaho and will start Boise State’s undergraduate Cyber Operations and Resilience (uCORe) program next semester. He said his passion and future is in cybersecurity. 

Jones is competing again in the Cybersecurity Entrepreneur Challenge focusing on the problem statement “limiting the white noise within security alerts.” The junior majoring in computer science with a cybersecurity emphasis and a +Business certificate graduates in 2024. She wants to work in cybersecurity or tech sales. 

“To say the least, Venture College changed my life,” she said. “I’ve been involved with them for over a year now and have learned immense amounts of information, networked with hundreds of amazing people, been presented with incredible opportunities and even won money.”

Although the quantity of cybersecurity-trained workers lags in Idaho and nationwide, these students may help fill that void.

“I want the capstone of my life to be that Idaho is the cyber hub for the country. And we can do that,” Vasko said.

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