Early in 2022, Dominique Calder’s relative lost almost $20,000 to a cryptocurrency scam.
“[W]hen I was helping the family member go through stuff,” the PhD candidate in Computer Science at George Mason University explains, “I was able to pretty much pinpoint back to the server where this origination happened.”
A few months later, when Calder's mentee and friend Emanuel Perez described an idea for a business to make the web3 space—where much cryptocurrency dealing takes place—more secure, Calder was eager to help. Perez came up with the idea for the business when he noticed a phishing scam in a group chat for investors interested in cryptocurrency.
“This is happening all across the community—even to people who know stuff about crypto. They are still getting scammed, because scammers are just that good.” Calder said.
By early November, as finalists in the Black Ambition Prize contest, Calder and Perez won $50,000 to develop Novus Security, Inc.
Novus Security Inc.
Calder and Perez started the business in March 2022 and applied for Black Ambition at the end of June, primarily to gain some exposure, says Calder.
“It's really gotten some great attention,” Calder says. Perez, an entrepreneur at heart, notes that his ambition to create Novus Security Inc., is unlike past endeavors—he left a full-time job at Microsoft to work on his startup full-time.
Since the contest, Novus has been making quick progress. The company is incorporated and the co-founders are planning to grow their team in the upcoming year. Ultimately, Calder and Perez plan to develop an app to detect potential phishing scams in Web3 and to foster a Web3 cybersecurity community.
“We also wanted to be a community for passionate Web3 users, [such as] people who are into crypto and into buying NFTs and things like that,” explains Calder. “We want a community to be built where we can detect scams [and] let people know ... ‘Hey, this is the new way that scammers are making an approach.’ So we want an educational aspect around [Novus] as well.”
Web3 is a decentralized version of the internet based on public blockchain. While the burgeoning space and its premise of decentralization entice users, the risks in engaging with an inherently unregulated space are all too apparent. Perez explains that the same risks to internet surfing in Web2, the version of the internet most people use, are elevated in Web3. For example, when assets are traded in Web3, Perez says, the user, rather than a third party such as a bank, must assume significant risk; the user is in charge of protecting these assets.
Moreover, scammers are adapting quickly in Web3. Perez recalls a joke about Web3 developing at ten times the speed of other industries and notes that the rapidity of developing threats poses a challenge to traditional cybersecurity systems. Calder says there are many free, public sites, such as VirusTotal, working to combat phishing in Web2. She explains, “You can go there and put in a site ... and they'll give you a certain confidence level like, ‘This site is likely suspicious based off of these factors.’ We want that for the Web3 space, because there's nothing that exists like that at the moment.”
A Balanced Partnership
Both alumni of Norfolk State University, Calder and Perez met when Calder returned to the school in 2017 as a recent grad to speak to computer science students.
“I gave a short spiel about my journey and how difficult things were for me,” Calder recalls. “He [Perez] was so moved, he came up to me and asked me to mentor him, because he was considering dropping out of school. I was very blown away that that he even came up to me and asked me, you know, to mentor him, let alone...that he was in a position that I was once in myself.”
“We formed a great friendship,” she adds, “He graduated just last year  … and he got a job at Microsoft coming straight out of college. That's any student's dream, right?”
The co-founders have complementary skillsets. While Calder studied computer science with a concentration in information assurance for both her bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, Perez chose to study business management information systems. Calder notes that combining their different perspectives has been “useful,” adding that their contrasting skills help sharpen each other.
“I have a heavy tech background myself,” Calder explains. While a graduate student at George Mason she has also been working for TikTok, where she was a founding member of their digital forensics team. She adds, “Having somebody like Emanuel, who's had a heavy entrepreneurial background, has been great … We're having to figure out a lot of things on our own … but we have a great rapport. We trust each other. We have a brother/sister type of relationship more than just business partners.”
As both Calder and Perez are natives of Virginia Beach, Virginia, it was all the more meaningful to receive the prize money as the culmination of a massive, positive event in their hometown. Founded by Pharrell Williams and led by Felecia Hatcher, the Black Ambition Prize contest awarded over two million dollars to finalists representing innovative businesses across various industries. The contest took place as part of the Mighty Dream Forum, a three-day conference on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Williams is also from Virginia Beach.
“It was really cool to see that level of creativity [and] that level of business being brought to our area,” Calder says. “It did something for the community. It reignited something that we were missing”
Calder notes that the area has lost business recently due to violence in the area.
“We're losing a lot of areas for people to hang out and do stuff and have fun and be safe,” she says. “So to see a hometown hero...make it rain $2.5 million to a bunch of people that really, really needed it was great.”
Of the win, Calder says, “We didn't even really envision this for ourselves at one point, but there was a time in life where we were able to see this for ourselves, and so to see all of that manifest that day on stage [when] we were standing there with the check—it's like, ‘Wow, things can really happen with some good work and good effort.’” Being part of this great event in their hometown “put the icing on the cake” to their winning $50,000, says Calder.
As finalists, the Novus co-founders now have access to a network of expert advisors as well as fellow budding entrepreneurs. Calder has relished meeting so many interesting people. “I love every moment,” she says.
Next for Novus
For now, the cofounders are focused on getting their app in the Chrome web store.
"The development is still underway, but the next thing is to definitely get the app out there to be used,” says Calder. “Every day people are getting hit by scams.”
Perez says he and Calder plan to keep their team small. Nevertheless, they hope to bring on new people in the upcoming year, specifically a full-stack software engineer and a security engineer, respectively.