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Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs
News article16 February 2023Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs

'Dare to go out there and try their ideas out'

An interview with 33 Under 33 entrepreneur Maria Terzi

Secrets of Success Maria Terzi 33 under 33

On the Promoting Enterprise portal we are talking to the entrepreneurs on the 33 Under 33 list. This Secrets of Success initiative aims to shine the spotlight on a selection of successful young entrepreneurs, documenting their stories in an effort to inspire others to consider entrepreneurship as a career path. Today it is the turn of young Cypriot entrepreneur Maria Terzi.

Maria is from Cyprus and has a BSc. (Hons) in Computer Science Innovation and a PhD in Machine Learning and Recommender Systems. Her mother is her hero and, when it comes to mentors, she owes a lot to Jon Whittle (her PhD supervisor), Andrew Eland (ex- engineering director at Google and founder at Diagonal) and Nicolas Dessaigne (YC Group partner and co-founder & CEO of Algolia). Entrepreneurship is in the DNA of her extended family, which comes from a small Catholic minority in Cyprus. Despite being refugees since 1974, the family has managed through the years to thrive in multiple business sectors, demonstrating an admirable entrepreneurial mind-set. 

Tell us about your business

Malloc is a privacy and data security start-up that enables people and enterprises to secure their data and protect their privacy. Its first product is Malloc VPN: Privacy and Security,a mobile app that protects your phone from spyware, enables you to block data trackers and crypto mining, and protects your online activity. This product is now approaching 1 million downloads in both Android and iOS devices and has users from 140 countries. 

Where did you get the idea from? 

During my PhD on data analytics, recommender systems and machine learning, as well as  while I was working at Google, I realised how powerful data is for advertising companies and data brokers. At the same time, I started getting sceptical about how our data is collected and used. My friends had been often complaining that, when talking about things, related advertisements were shown to them in social media. I observed a rise in spyware, easily available to anyone who can download and install it on a target’s phone, and other, very sophisticated, products that can gain full access on your phone. So I decided to build an AI algorithm that would run on a mobile phone and detect and prevent anyone from recording or transmitting data without the user’s knowledge or consent. I shared this idea with my co-founders, Artemis and Liza, and we decided to team up to transform it into Malloc.

How old were you when you first decided you would start your own business?

I made my first attempt to start my own business when I was 22, after winning a hackathon in London organised by Google and the Royal Society of Arts. However, I was pursuing my PhD at the time and I couldn’t fully focus on my business ideas and getting them off the ground. However, it looks like my entrepreneurial spirit never left me.

How did you get it off the ground?

Malloc was started in summer 2020 by Artemis Kontou, Liza Charalamabous and myself, after receiving funding from the Research and Innovation Foundation of Cyprus, with support from NextGeneration EU funding. That funding allowed me to quit my job at the KIOS Centre of Excellence at the University of Cyprus and fully focus on running Malloc and developing its first product. Six months later, we managed to develop a prototype and gain 30,000 users, attracting the interest of Y Combinator. Y Combinator invested in our company, and by September 2021 Malloc raised almost 2 million dollars from accredited Silicon Valley funds and US investors.

Who did you turn to for help?

The plan was to utilise all the opportunities Cyprus has to offer before looking abroad. Malloc joined the IDEA Innovation Centre from the Bank of Cyprus and won first prize at the Cyprus Entrepreneurship Competition by the University of Cyprus. The Cypriot start-up ecosystem and fellow entrepreneurs were very supportive during the first very difficult steps. Y Combinator mentorship was key to growing our company fast, tackling challenges and getting access to investors.

Describe some of the obstacles you faced as a young person starting out in this business.

As a young person, a woman, and a researcher I faced huge doubtin my ability to run a global company successfully. People thought that I wouldn’t be able to raise capital, they thought that my age and my academic - non business - background would make me and Malloc incompetent. The fact is that people are still questioning how three young women managed to raise millions and build a product that is now achieving such global growth.

The typical mind-set in Cyprus, and the whole of Europe, does not embrace risk. We don’t celebrate people quitting their jobs to take up a challenge and start something new. It’s extremely challenging for early stage start-ups to secure capital from European investors and funds on competitive terms. Bank financing is almost impossible. All these are more pronounced if you are a woman, having your ability to lead strongly questioned by default, and your success widely measured in terms of having a family and raising children.

How do you define success?

Success for Malloc is a world where privacy is respected, where people and organisations have full control of who is recording or transmitting their data and have the power to act on it. I would like to see Malloc growing and having a real impact in the world, improving people's lives and helping organisations protect their data.

What was the most challenging aspect of setting up your business?

The most challenging aspect of running Malloc thus far was getting it off the ground after receiving the initial grant. Besides myself, Malloc was not able to employ others to work on developing and promoting the product. A radical move had to be made to bring in new capital, which is why I decided to apply to Y Combinator, one of the most prestigious accelerators in the world, which invested in Malloc and crucially supported its growth.

What has been the most rewarding part of your journey so far?

The most rewarding part is reading the emails and reviews from people that found the Malloc app helpful. We had people that have found and removed spyware that their ex partners installed on their phones, people who use the app to surf the web freely without being limited by the borders of their country, people who now sleep at ease. Despite the fact that running a start-up is super demanding and stressful, it allows you to grow as a person, learn how to overcome significant challenges, to think fast and act fast, to lose but get up again and win. Malloc is now growing and having a real impact.

What are the future goals of your business, and how will you go about achieving them?

Malloc aims to grow further into the B2B and SaaS space. The Malloc technology will soon be offered as a library that other app developers can use to secure their app from hacking attempts and protect their data from unattended transmissions. Also, Malloc Enterprise, our new product consisting of a mobile app with a centralised admin, will help companies to protect the devices of their employees, protect confidential data and restrict the spread of spyware.

What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs out there?

My advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs is to dare to go out there and try their ideas out. It’s very hard to predict if an idea will succeed and there will always be a lot of doubt. If you truly believe in your idea, trust your gut and your abilities, ignore the noise and proceed. Provided that you acknowledge the time and effort that must be put in, the unparalleled dedication, responsibility and critical decision making that must be taken. Furthermore, my advice would be that in the start-up world you always need to think global and deeply understand your customers, their problems and actual needs.

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