Blazing a trail, from Surrey to cyber

Pioneering Surrey alumna and tech entrepreneur Dr Anna Vartapetiance is on a quest to make the internet a safer place with her groundbreaking cyber safety technology.

 Binary code polygons connected on dark blue background  Binary code polygons connected on dark blue background

©TU IS (Getty Images)

©TU IS (Getty Images)

Dr Anna Vartapetiance, co-founder and CEO of Securium, a spin out company of the University of Surrey

In every walk of life, Dr Anna Vartapetiance is driven by three core values - people, passion and purpose.  

Driven by an indomitable sense of justice, the co-founder and CEO of Securium – an award-winning cyber technology company using artificial intelligence to detect and prevent online harm - has in her words, “written the formula to bust everyone else’s lies”.

Dr Bob Nichol introduces Dr Anna Vartapetiance

In 2022, Anna was awarded Innovate UK’s ‘Women in Innovation Award’, which recognises female leaders who are developing commercially successful solutions to societal, environmental and economic challenges.

Anna, who is a visiting researcher at Surrey’s Centre for Cyber Security, returned to campus for the unveiling of a prestigious purple plaque, located in the Alan Turing Building in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences (FEPS), where she was a student between 2007 and 2014.

She then gave a talk and took part in a Q&A session hosted by Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean for FEPS, Professor Bob Nichol. Addressing former lecturers and colleagues, Anna stressed the importance of diversity in the industry.

Dr Anna Vartapetiance addresses members of the audience at the University of Surrey

“Nobody thought I would graduate from high school,” admits Anna, who was diagnosed with dyslexia. “ I couldn’t spell but I was good at maths. At the age of 12, I was studying five languages. I finished school with a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

Born in Iran to Armenian parents, Anna initially started a degree in Bangalore, India, but moved back home when her father became unwell. After training as a stage makeup artist, she then began training to become an airplane repair engineer before deciding to study at the International University of Chabahar near the Pakistan border.

“From an educational perspective I had to do a lot of work on my own, but from a life perspective it taught me a lot,” says Anna. “It was one of the most difficult and happy three-and-a-half years of my life. If you want to feel privileged, go there for a week.”

A self-proclaimed citizen of the world, Anna arrived at Surrey in 2007 to study for a Masters in Information Systems within the department of Computer Science.

“This was my first experience of properly sitting in a classroom because previously I had done external programmes so I had dipped in and out,” says Anna.

The friends that I had – and still have after 17 years - was one of the best things.
Anna Vartapetiance with her friends outside Guildford Cathedral

Photo credit: Anna Vartapetiance

Photo credit: Anna Vartapetiance

Anna Vartapetiance on her graduation day at the University of Surrey
I loved life at Surrey. I’ve always valued a good work-life balance and loved being on campus and waking up late, going to classes, enjoying it with friends, going to the library. I loved the fact it was a campus and we were all in the same place all day long.

"It was hard work. But I was always part of the dance society and that was my main hobby away from my Masters. Rubix was a good place at the end of the week to relax in a safe environment.”

Lee Gillam with Anna Vartapetiance at her PhD graduation

Anna with her supervisor Dr Lee Gillam Photo credit: Dr Anna Vartapetiance

Anna with her supervisor Dr Lee Gillam Photo credit: Dr Anna Vartapetiance

Dr Anna Vartapetiance on her graduation day

Photo credit: Dr Anna Vartapetiance

Photo credit: Dr Anna Vartapetiance

Surrey students inside Guildford cathedral on their graduation day

After completing her Masters with distinction and winning best dissertation, Anna stayed at Surrey to study for a PhD in the Centre for Cyber Security under the supervision of Computer Ethics lecturer Dr Lee Gillam.

“I felt really at home [at Surrey]," says Anna. "I talk a lot about the fact that I’m a neurodivergent female tech entrepreneur of mixed race and the department and faculty fitted me well – none of those things were a problem.

“In the department, gender was not a factor at all. When I was doing my PhD it was about a 50:50 split, it was only when you go out into the wider world that you are reminded that you are in the minority as a female in tech, particularly cybersecurity.”

Despite losing her father during her time at Surrey, she completed her PhD in Computational Approaches for Verbal Deception Detection in 2015.

“Dad passed away six months into my PhD,” she recalls. “I wanted to go home to be with Mum, but Dad didn’t raise me to be a quitter.”

Dr Anna Vartapetiance poses for a photograph with her mother

Anna with her mother

Anna with her mother

Following her PhD, Nigel Biggs, who was the Entrepreneur in Residence at Surrey, suggested she apply for Innovate UK’s ICURe programme. In 2016, Anna was awarded £50,000 to set up Securium.

Nigel Biggs (L), Business Advisor and Mentor; Dr Anna Vartapetiance, Securium CEO, and Dr Lee Gillam (R), Securium CTO

Nigel Biggs (L), Business Advisor and Mentor; Dr Anna Vartapetiance, Securium CEO, and Dr Lee Gillam (R), Securium CTO

Nigel Biggs (L), Business Advisor and Mentor; Dr Anna Vartapetiance, Securium CEO, and Dr Lee Gillam (R), Securium CTO

The University spin-out helps to detect and prevent harmful conversations such as child sexual grooming and exploitation. The tools highlight dangerous and illegal communications in chat rooms and gaming platforms.

In March 2022, Anna was awarded a Women in Innovation Award, winning a further £50,000 in government grants to scale up the business.

A recent pilot with Merseyside Police analysed data of rape and serious sexual offence cases and found 46 leads in five minutes, when the Detective Inspector had failed to find anything in two hours.

“The business is called Securium, because it is like a secure place,” explains Anna. “We have the mission of protecting the most vulnerable, whether that is businesses, adults or particularly children.

“Lee and I are both very passionate about work in bringing good to tech, and somehow we found ourselves discovering the joy you can get from preventing addiction to online gambling or protection of children.”

Whether it is identifying harmful conversations or helping police uncover evidence of rape and domestic abuse, the impact of Anna’s work will be felt across the globe, but she is also mindful of bringing value to her community.

“I love being part of the Surrey community,” she says. “You learn a lot of skills that you take with you and at some point you are going to implement and bring value back to the community.

Wherever I am, I hope to bring some value.”
Dr Anna Vartapetiance conducts an interview during her return to campus
Purple Plaque honouring Dr Anna Vartapetiance

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