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The New Cyber Frontier

Stephenson Stellar, a plucky science startup, focuses its cyber vision on space
By Gary Perilloux
In the six score and eight years since a stroke of Abraham Lincoln’s pen established the National Academy of Sciences, rarely had the society of scholars issued so dire a warning. The year—1991—found them raising the alarm in Computers at Risk: Safe Computing in the Information Age. The report warned, “The modern thief can steal more with a computer than with a gun. Tomorrow’s terrorist may be able to do more damage with a keyboard than with a bomb.”

Thirty years later, ransomware attacks are commonplace. Meatpacker JBS, midstream company Colonial Pipeline, and IT firm Kaseya and its customers are among the recent targets of multimillion-dollar ransom demands. Industry experts talk of a global cyber-security market exceeding $1 trillion by 2025.

Project Manager Jamie O’Quinn, left, and Director of Operations Alan Dunn | Tim Mueller photo
Project Manager Jamie O’Quinn, left, and Director of Operations Alan Dunn | Tim Mueller photo

Against that backdrop, an emerging Baton Rouge business is addressing cyber risks beyond earthbound networks and cloud computing systems. Stephenson Stellar Corp. is preparing for the new cyber frontier: space.

Working under the radar at the 35-acre Water Campus in Baton Rouge, Stephenson Stellar created a splash in May 2021 by landing two contracts totaling more than $42 million from the New York-based Air Force Research Laboratory.

One entails the establishment of an independent laboratory for testing the hardware components of fifth-generation wireless communications, or 5G technology. The second contract will lead the company—also known as SSC—to deploy a series of new satellites and to test cybersecurity protection in orbit.

“We like to sit between government and industry,” said SSC President Jeff Moulton, whose nonprofit firm devises cyber solutions that federal and private customers adopt in the marketplace. “That’s our mission.”

Moulton oversees both the new Stephenson Stellar firm and a six-year-old affiliate, Stephenson Technologies Corp. Together, they’ve attracted more than $130 million in cybersecurity contracts, and Moulton forecasts SSC soon will surpass the size of STC. That’s how strongly he views the space opportunity.

Both companies were born of the devotion of Emmet Stephenson and his late wife, Toni, for their alma mater, LSU. The couple’s $25 million donation in 2007 represented one of the largest gifts in university history and spurred centers of excellence in disaster management, entrepreneurship, emergency training, biomedical research, law enforcement, veterinary medicine and applied cyber research.

For the past decade, Emmet Stephenson has deemed cyber vulnerabilities as “probably the most significant risk” facing the United States.

“If we don’t get ahead of it,” he said, “it could end up disrupting our economy, our lives and even our national security.”

During STC’s groundwork, evidence emerged that not only were hackers compromising businesses online, they were beginning to sabotage satellites, including GPS systems. That threat prompted the Stephensons to provide an additional $2 million in seed capital to form Stephenson Stellar Corp., with SSC joining STC in a highly secure facility on The Water Campus.

On a recent day in Baton Rouge, intern Madison Schuster collaborated with her colleagues to hack a “flat sat,” jargon for an earthbound satellite they’re infusing with machine-learning defenses to protect it on D-Day. That day, in December 2022, will see SSC deploy four satellites into orbit for real-time missions.

Schuster, a computer science senior at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, said the best part of SSC “is knowing that we’re making a difference and keeping people safe. And who isn’t interested in space systems?”

“If we don’t get ahead of it, it could end up disrupting our economy, our lives and even our national security.”
To make a difference in cyberspace, Louisiana Economic Development committed $1.5 million in 2019 to outfit 11,000 square feet of new office space on The Water Campus with the strictest cybersecurity standards. That Louisiana Cyber Coordination Center now is home to STC, SSC, defense contractor Radiance Technologies and the Louisiana National Guard’s cyber-security unit. That same year, National Guard and Stephenson teams joined other agencies to thwart ransomware attacks upon school districts and state agencies throughout Louisiana.

“The biggest thing was getting the kids back into school,” said Alan Dunn, who serves as STC’s director of operations and reserve commander of the Guard’s cyber team. Through painstaking work, the state restored networks and averted paying ransoms. Others, as with the

$11 million ransom paid by JBS, chose payment over a potentially market-crippling wait for solutions.

“The cyber threat will probably never be eliminated,” Moulton said. “We’ve got to learn to live with it.”

That means the cyber partners will continue refining their capabilities.

A larger cyber range is part of current construction that will lead to 19,000 square feet of cyber operations in a highly secure environment on The Water Campus.

With those facilities in place, human talent is the next big hurdle in cyberspace. As much as 90% of STC and SSC federal project work is classified, meaning Moulton must invest in security clearances that can touch six-figures for a new employee. That makes hiring decisions crucial.

Cyber workstations at the Cyber Coordination Center bear the unmistakable stamp of Louisiana, with names including Magnolia, Cypress, Catahoula, Coushatta and Pelican. In one room, information systems security engineers Ryan Smith and Rachel Ferrara are reverse-engineering code and analyzing networks linked to internet of things applications.

At Ferrara’s desk, a chartreuse rubber “SIEM Monster”—resembling a miniature Incredible Hulk—looks over her shoulder. The SIEM monster is shorthand for a Security Information and Event Management tool the STC employees use to filter and fuse network data. What they find is protecting small businesses from cyberattacks in one $10 million contract. In a new $25 million contract, STC is building a digital dome to protect assets at Louisiana’s coastal energy hub, Port Fourchon.

The attraction of tech talent to Louisiana is benefiting from public-private partnerships in purpose-built business parks, such as the emerging Space Campus at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

State, city-parish and civic leaders have done “a phenomenal job of just being smart and being sure that the physical space is built in a way that’s almost future-proof” at the Water Campus, said Jamie O’Quinn, who manages SSC’s procurement portal.

Moving from Texas to Baton Rouge in 2009, O’Quinn did grant and contract work for LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Stephenson Disaster Management Institute, then moved to SSC, where she’s also pursuing a master’s degree in data analytics.

For every two cybersecurity jobs in Louisiana, there is an unfilled job opening, according to the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education. That ratio is in line with national demand, indicating a fierce battle for future cyber talent. STC and SSC employ 67 at project offices nationwide, including a headquarters hub of 18 in Baton Rouge. Those professionals are the catalyst for growing the cyber enterprises, Emmet Stephenson said.

“Jeff attracts really good people, and lots of them,” Stephenson said. “He has the ability to both get the contracts, and then attract the people who are qualified to go fulfill the contracts. And if you get good people, you are going to succeed or have a very high probability of success.