Big data startup with NSA roots nets $2M

Sqrrl, a startup that grew out of the government’s super stealthy National Security Agency, has snagged $2 million in seed money to build out technology to make big data applications more secure and more palatable for use by healthcare and financial services companies.

Co-founded by CEO Oren Falkowitz, sqrrl is parlaying the Apache Accumulo project — which is in turn based on Google’s BigTable key value store. “Everyone knows big data is hot, but there are concerns around security that keep it from reaching its full potential,” Falkowitz said in an interview.

What sqrrl will be able to do is segment out a file — say an electronic health record (EHR) — into many parts which can then be locked down or left open as needed.

“An EHR might have a hundred or a thousand components and if any one of those requires an extra control, like the patient’s social security number, the current method is to control that entire record. We have fine-grained access model so you can assign different security to the patient name, to allergies, to medications, to doctors names–they can all be individually controlled,” he said.

The company has seven employees now but plans to staff up aggressively — it just moved from the Washington, D.C. area to Cambridge, Mass. to better tap into the reservoir of big data expertise in the area.

It also netted some big name advisors in its choice of investors. Chris Lynch, former CEO of Vertica, now part of HP(s hpq), is advising the company, as is Matrix Partners’ Antonio Rodriguez.

While it seems counterintuitive that the NSA would open-source technology it has fostered, there is at least one precedent. The agency, for example, developed SELinux, or Secure Enhanced Linux, a hardened version of the popular open source operating system, Falkowitz said.

Asked about the company’s unusual name, Falkowitz said the way current companies deal with sensitive data — basically hiding it away as squirrels do with acorns — is what informed the decision. “With our technology, companies resolve that problem — there’ll be no need to hide your data to make it more secure,” he said.