An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Harsh R. Pandya (co-founder and president) of Giant Oak, which was honored in our:
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Arlington (Virginia)
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Arlington (Virginia)
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Arlington (Virginia)
Tell us the origin story of Giant Oak – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
In 2010, my co-founder, Gary Shiffman, had been identified to lead a social science team for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). So when we founded Giant Oak, we were doing DARPA-funded research and development to draw conclusions about economics, governance, and violence using all sorts of data. Our contributions to DARPA’s work in Afghanistan were honored with a Joint Meritorious Unit Award in 2012.
We learned a lot about what the men and women charged with protecting the nation’s security really needed to be efficient and effective in those years – it came down to effective search, retrieval, and prioritization technology. Our customers had useful internal data and models, but no way to quickly and efficiently use context from data external to the organization. That process always involved manual, time-intensive review and investigation. As a result, leads could only be sourced internally, and publicly available information only enriched cases after-the-fact. There was no viable way to screen structured and unstructured publicly available information to find external indicators of risk for a population of millions. And you only had to open the papers on any given day to hear that the signals were always there.
We built software to solve this problem, and GOST (Giant Oak Search Technology) became our flagship product. GOST is machine-learning-as-a-platform software for entity screening and ongoing monitoring. Empowering the teams and individuals charged with public safety, national security, and financial crimes compliance and enforcement missions motivates us to innovate and push boundaries every day. We are genuine about making the world a safer place.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
There is a difference between making the world a safer place and doing just enough to meet legal and compliance requirements. As a person who wakes up every morning motivated by resolving the existential risk of missing critical information, it’s surprising to see that programs, policies, and procedures are built to mitigate the pragmatic risk of things like financial loss or the avoidance of fines. Doing something disruptive always feels like swimming against the current. So it has always helped us to seek out like-minded individuals who see the bigger picture. And while it can take some time, once you find them, they become better advocates of our own products than we could ever be.
What does the future hold for Giant Oak?
Real-world impact and greater market share. We see success stories every day of GOST enabling analysts and screeners to detect, confirm the identity of, deny, or intercept human traffickers, drug traffickers, money launderers, terrorist financiers, fraudsters, etc. These moments of real-world impact will propel our growth. As our clients tally these successes, we can repeat that performance at peer institutions. And even within the enterprise, GOST has additional applications for risk management, insider threat and personnel screening, cybersecurity, and other critical functions where it can add value by sourcing external leads. We are extremely optimistic about our growth and impact in 2021 and beyond.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Arlington?
We build machine learning algorithms and software designed to help those charged with public safety, national security, and financial security missions. Being just across the river from Washington, D.C. and with so many federal agencies and private companies having offices and headquarters in the Northern Virginia area, it is incredibly convenient to be located in close proximity to decision-makers and executives so that we can make an impact on the ground. We also get access to some of the best academic and research institutes in the area, including Georgetown University, where Gary and I both teach at the Center for Security Studies.
We’ve followed our peers honored by The Tech Tribune closely, and absolutely love the company. HUNGRY Catering in particular has been a go-to for us, especially pre-pandemic when our office was the central hub for people to gather from around the country. As Amazon HQ2 ramps up, I believe a lot of talent and funding will follow on its heels.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My mantra right now is “get used to it”. Almost every significant change or inflection point on our growth journey has felt overwhelming. Even really positive news can feel daunting because of the work you’ll need to put into maximizing the opportunity. That’s why your fight-or-flight response kicks in. I try to treat that feeling as the new normal (tend-and-befriend it) instead of something to become adverse to or avoid feeling altogether. Doing this consistently takes a tremendous amount of patience and mindfulness, so always take the opportunity to defuse from your thoughts and de-clutter your mind.