The team at Nitro Solutions may be in the artificial intelligence business, but they know the real-time smarts behind investing in the performing arts.
Take a brewing head cold, the growing menace of cybersecurity threats, a healthy (arguably unhealthy) love of all things Star Wars, and you have the seminal forces behind Tampa’s extraordinary cybersecurity success story, Nitro Solutions.
The business, founded by entrepreneurs Pete and Molly Slade, sits on the ninth floor of a downtown Tampa high rise, the windowed conference room overlooking the Hillsborough River and expanse of Davis Islands and the bay. Instead of a flesh-and-blood human greeting visitors and taking appointments at the reception desk, there “sits” ERIN™, an Enterprise-Ready Intelligent NitroServer®, or, in common parlance, an artificial intelligence persona. According to Nitro’s website, ERIN “is a cognitive computing solution that can reason, think and problem solve alongside humans,” and we know for a fact that when you whip out your phone for a selfie with her, ERIN smiles and waves good naturedly.
Peter Slade, a Manchester, England native who has almost-but-not-quite Americanized his charming accent, likes to be called Pete and loves talking about software development and design. “I’m an engineer at heart. I love what I do,” he says. “We started out after the mobile industry revolution, addressing data problems for clients. Eventually, we realized we wanted to make our own product, to pivot the company and change direction. Like mobile, we saw artificial intelligence was going to change the world. We took off 18 months to develop our AI software, but we knew we had to go all-in behind it or we wouldn’t succeed. So, that’s what we did.”
Around this time, Pete started to contract a cold, and he found himself in a meeting ruminating about his oncoming sickness. “I was thinking that the body has these mobilization processes to handle unknown threats, that a disease enters and it knows how to respond with an intelligence that is reactive in nature. The system knows how the body functions when all is normal, so when something abnormal enters, it attacks the threat.” This immune-system model became the basis of their cybersecurity software, NitroDefender™, an artificial intelligence that reacts to a threat inside a computer system like our body’s immune system.
“We built the first unsupervised neural network for cyber defense,” says Molly, who encourages the employees to personalize the office with their style, including, Harry Potter, Star Wars and even a 10-foot dinosaur. “Cybersecurity is a massive problem. No one will attack the United States with conventional weapons because we have so many with so much power. But, in cyberspace, it’s a pretty even playing field,” she says. “We felt an obligation to be doing something because everyone is fair game online. Creating an internal cyber immune system has significant potential to help. We feel good about that.”
The performing arts are also important to the Slades for one very personal reason: their son, Chris. They did not know at a young age Chris had developed a hearing impairment, and not until Chris entered pre-school at three years old did a teacher mention to Molly and Pete that their son was deaf. “He’d learned to read lips,” Molly says, “so we could ask him questions and he’d respond with gestures, so we had no idea. It was stunning information.” The memory sends tears to Molly’s eyes. “I always get emotional talking about this. Chris had surgeries and tubes implanted, we did all of that for him, but he still had a severe speech impediment because he had missed that part of his speech development. That’s when his speech teacher told us to get him singing, to enroll him in musical theater.”
The Slades did. In short order, they began to see that music and singing did for Chris what they had considered impossible: practicing the performing arts was how Chris developed the ability to talk as if he had always been able to hear. “Where would we be, where would Chris be, without music and singing?” Molly asks. “That was the best piece of advice we were ever told: get your son to the performing arts. The performing arts gives every child –every one – a piece of their humanity that only the arts teaches. The arts trigger that creative spark that lives in everyone, and it is so valuable to our understanding of ourselves and each other.”
Twelve years ago, the Slades chose Tampa to live, and then later as the headquarters of their company, Nitro Solutions. They needed a place with a lot of potential, somewhere with great performing arts. They found The Straz. “We were so shocked and happy to see that something like The Straz was happening in Tampa. It was a huge selling point. The shows and artists were on par with everything available to us in bigger cities like New York or Denver,” says Molly. “We are so impressed with the diversity of shows, and when we take clients to our luxury box they don’t always realize beforehand what an asset The Straz is to this community. We like showing people what a spectacular arts center they have in their backyard.”
“We were super excited about The Straz when we looked at Tampa to relocate,” says Pete. “Anytime you go to The Straz, you have a unique experience. When you take clients to a [sports] game, it’s fun, you leave and it’s over. But, you take them to a show at The Straz, and you are changed, the night is one everybody remembers. The people we bring are blown away by the experience.”
The Slades, like most of our Straz donors, know we are “more than just a show.” With their personal attachment to the transformative power of the performing arts in shaping the life of their son, the Slades donate to The Straz to create access for other children as well. “Look at the value for the cost; it’s a no-brainer to donate to The Straz. But, it’s also incredibly important to support the work of The Straz. When we donate, our donations go into outreach programs that get performing arts to underprivileged children so they can experience the benefit of the creative arts. You can support so many children through a donation to The Straz. The world also needs innovation, and innovation comes from creativity, and that comes from learning in the arts. The good work goes on and on and on. All children deserve the chance to find out what they can do.”
We are happy Molly and Peter defend cyberspace as well as stand up for the importance of the performing arts. In their work and life, they’re augmenting reality for so many people with their support of The Straz and Straz outreach programs. We think that’s pretty smart.
* Since publishing this story, Nitro Solutions has changed their business name to Kinetic Fuse LLC