The future of tech

Houston university creates program to fill the need for cyber engineering professionals

Houston Baptist University has created a program that is training the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. Courtesy of HBU

A few years ago, Houston Baptist University realized there was a huge need for more engineering programs within Houston higher education in one area particularly: Cybersecurity.

The school brought in Stan Napper from Louisiana Tech University to become the founding dean of the College of Engineering. The college now has three bachelor's degree programs in cyber engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science.

"Cyber engineering is designing secure systems at the interface of operational technology and information technology," says Napper. "Cyber engineering is in the middle of devices and data. It's in the middle of the hardware and software. And, academically, it's in the middle of electrical engineering and computer science."

The program is the only of its kind in Texas, Napper says. In fact, he says he doesn't know of any other similar programs other than the one he was a part of at Louisiana Tech. However, he does expect that to change. There's a growing need for cybersecurity specialists — especially in the health care and energy industries.

"One of those things that really got my attention a couple of years ago is in 2017, the FDA issued a recall on the over 450,000 pacemakers that had already been implanted," Napper says. "Modern pacemakers now can be controlled remotely through the skin to change the pacing frequency or some other parameters of that pacemaker without having to go back and do another surgery. They discovered a software glitch to a particular brand of pacemaker that could have been exploited."

Thankfully, that glitch wasn't exploited, but it put thousands of people's lives at risk by those technology designers not foreseeing this cybersecurity glitch. Anywhere devices — not just computers or phones — are used remotely or on a network, security is compromised.

Napper has only one year of the program under his belt, but he says he has already seen a lot of interest from the school's advisory board, which is made up of 75 CTO and tech leaders.

"They're lining up to get our students as interns even before we have the students ready," Napper says. "We've only finished our first freshman class."

Napper says the program is on track to have a capacity of 200 to 250 students. At a school like HBU, which has around 3,400 total students, that's a huge chunk of the school's population. Some think the program, considering the need and reception, could grow to 1,000 students.

The courses cover everything within operational and intellectual technology — device design, data science, automation, artificial intelligence — and the students are already getting their hands dirty.

"Our approach to education is learning in context. It is very hands on, but it's not hands off or hands on sake," Napper says. "There's no single class in our inventory of courses where one person stands at the front and talks the whole time. Our students carry their lab with them to class. We changed the definition of a lab. A lab is not the place you go to once a week in order to write a lab report."

This fall, the school will have its inaugural class in sophomore-level courses and a new batch of freshmen. Down the road, Napper says they'll look into creating a master's program.

Michael Tims / Houston Bapitst U

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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