University Spin-Out Tumult Labs Keeps Data Safe With Innovative Privacy Tech

First conceived for the Census Bureau, Tumult Labs is now offering its data-privacy solutions for other companies and public entities.

Durham’s Tumult Labs is bringing collaborative change to differential privacy with revolutionary research that will soon help companies protect customers’ privacy without the price tag of hiring an in-house team.

Tumult is a product of research done by its three co-founders: Gerome Miklau, the CEO and a professor at UMass Amherst; Ashwin Machanavajjhala, Chief Scientist and a professor at Duke University; and Michael Hay, CTO and a professor at Colgate University. 

The trio are experts in differential privacy, which allows companies and firms to access trends in data without revealing key details that would identify individuals and leak their personal information.

“There is a privacy problem,” Machanavajjhala said, “because rampant data collection means everybody has access to very sensitive data about you. The raw data itself is sensitive, but combining the data across different sources makes it even more sensitive.” 

Before they co-founded Tumult, Hay, Miklau and Machanavajjhala worked together to try and protect this “en masse” data at one of the biggest data hubs in the U.S.: The Census Bureau. 

There and at other individual consulting gigs, they began to realize that the differential privacy technology they were researching could translate into adaptable solutions that other companies and public entities could use. The trio finished up their work at the Census Bureau and founded Tumult, with support from their three affiliate universities—Duke, UMass Amherst and Colgate.

“Not everyone has the resources that Census has, or that Google has, or that Facebook has, or Apple,” Hay said. “And so I think we saw working with these other companies, just how hard it was if you didn’t have an in-house team of experts to help you. That really motivated us to think about the possibility of starting a company like Tumult Labs, which we ultimately did.”

What is different about Tumult from other differential privacy solutions is that it aims to be just that—a solution, which companies across multiple industries can adapt with the help of Tumult’s guidance to fit their own systems and needs. 

This makes differential privacy a viable solution for companies that aren’t necessarily tech giants, and ultimately keeps more consumers’ data safe while exploring how to address the tradeoffs between releasing more data and keeping the consumers’ identity safe in the process.

Said Miklau, the CEO: “It’s separating two things—private facts from general insights—that our software does, and this privacy model is a rigorous approach that’s more robust, which is the best thing ever. Our software works within this model and makes it safe and efficient to release data, because they can’t send the raw data. They’ve got to transform it, and that’s what our software does. It’s a transformation that ensures privacy.”

The company is now seeking early-stage customers for their technology, which is adapted largely from their individual and joint consulting experiences and research at large companies including multiple government agencies and Facebook. According to Miklau, the currently bootstrapped company will be looking for funding in the coming months.

Making a home in the Triangle

With three founders spread across three states due to their university affiliation as the company continues to hire within a niche field that requires specialized skills, finding a location for Tumult was a challenge—one that the Triangle has met. 

Although the company has transitioned from the American Underground to a remote office for Covid safety since the pandemic began, Duke’s Machanavajjhala said the Triangle continues to be an enticing spot to grow a specialized, first-in-industry startup like Tumult. 

“Duke is surprisingly supportive of faculty-led startups, so we had a pretty good experience with Duke itself, but I was also pleasantly surprised with the startup scene in Durham when we had an office in American Underground,” said Machanavajjhala. “The majority of our workforce is based in the Raleigh-Durham area, and we were intentional because we wanted to have a physical presence here. It was definitely exciting to see a more vibrant startup scene come up here.”

For more information about working with Tumult as a client or for the startup as a qualified differential privacy expert, check out the company’s website. 

About Suzannah Claire Perry 74 Articles
Suzannah "Claire" Perry is a senior Journalism and Peace, War and Defense major at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When she isn't at GrepBeat, you can find her in a coffeeshop, her hometown of Cary, N.C., or on Twitter @sclaire_perry.