An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Gary M. Shiffman, PhD, the founder and CEO of Giant Oak, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of Giant Oak – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
My life’s work seems to have a center of gravity around teaching and empowering others to advance public safety and security through economics. In 2009, some people at DARPA invited me into a program to use big data and machine learning to identify terrorists and insurgents – I received an invitation to be the behavioral scientist on the spot. We all quickly learned that, with respect supporting counter-insurgency professionals, behavioral science plus machine learning performed better than just any one discipline on its own; this realization inspired me. I created Giant Oak to build tools based on three pillars: behavioral science, machine learning/AI, and subject matter expertise. Today, we continue this tradition, focusing on building software to empower those engaged in combating all forms of illicit violence, coercion, and financial crime.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
As a senior executive in the US government and as a business unit general manager at a large Fortune 200 corporation, I understood the frustrations of being an agent of change in a big bureaucracy. In launching Giant Oak, I now understand the challenges of introducing significantly better technologies (disruptive technologies) into markets dominated by large and entrenched incumbents who have no incentive to let you in, and large institutions who have a hard time taking risks on young ventures. Market inertia, by far, poses the biggest hurdle to Giant Oak. Our sales cycle has gone something like this: within 30 days people love the technology, and then one year later we complete the procurement process.
What does the future hold for Giant Oak?
We have GOSTⓇ, a piece of software performing orders of magnitude better than the incumbent technologies. We have an amazingly talented team dedicated to our mission, and we have a strong culture. If we keep pushing our bold ideas, grounded in good science, and treating everyone we meet with respect, we will absolutely disrupt the market. We started in screening programs in the government, and moved to anti-money laundering and fraud in financial institutions. From here, the applications for behavioral science and ML-based screening and continuous vetting tools are endless. Any time someone has a large population that needs to be prioritized, GOST will become the default tool, especially for those seeking a privacy-preserving methodology.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Arlington?
I love so much about Arlington: the food, the outdoor spaces, the biking and scooters, the coffee, and the tech-friendly culture. My kids went to Arlington schools and we couldn’t have been happier. Giant Oak spun out of DARPA, the large US Government Research and Development agency located right here. I cannot overstate the advantages tech companies have in Arlington, and these will only get better as more tech companies open offices in this city.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is that you have to believe in yourself and your mission. The odds of small tech startups succeeding are low, but some teams are successful. If you believe in yourself, surround yourself with good people, and create a good culture, you can be successful – even against the odds.