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Adventures in Digital Forensics

VTO, a startup specializing in recovering data from errant drones and damaged phones, has defied early skeptics with its novel approach to security.

Adventures in Digital Forensics

Chandler Park sits on 192 acres along the bank of the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with spectacular overlooks that have made it a popular destination for rock climbing and rappelling. Needless to say, throwing yourself down a sheer rock cliff takes courage. Doing it on a whim, with no experience and borrowed ropes, takes more than that.

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Josh Reynolds took the plunge one day 20 years ago–and he’s still taking risks today. In fact, he partly credits the experience for inspiring him to start VTO, a digital forensics company based just outside Denver.

He rappelled from that rock in Oklahoma with his friend Steve Watson, a cofounder of VTO. Both had established themselves at tech and telecom companies that were household names, but they didn’t hesitate when to jump off another cliff—more metaphorical but equally treacherous—by starting a company of their own.


Related: For more stories of entrepreneurial grit, visit the Encourage Courage hub by Hiscox. 


There were early critics, to be sure, but Reynolds, as CEO, overcame that hurdle, landing a nearly million-dollar contract with the Department of Homeland Security just two months after launch.

Telling Stories With Data

Josh Reynolds, cofounder & CEO of VTO. [Photo: VTO]
Digital forensics involves extracting data from any device with memory. The field made headlines last year during a standoff between the FBI and Apple over accessing a criminal’s iPhone. But it extends beyond smartphones. “If you can turn something off and back on, and it remembers where it was in a movie or remembers who was communicating with it last, that is something that has memory on it,” says Reynolds. “Our job is to pull data out of that memory and make it available to tell a story.”

While significant work had been done around retrieving memory from phones and laptops, Reynolds, Watson, and VTO’s third cofounder, Chris Rubio, saw a new opportunity in the emergence of consumer drones.

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“As drones continue to land in places that they shouldn’t land, there was no process or method for law enforcement to find out where that drone may have come from,” says Rubio. “If you have a drone on the White House lawn, we want to be able to find out where it took off from, its flight path, the coordinates it could have flown, any photos or videos it may have taken, and extract as much data from that one drone without actually having to have the owner, the remote control, or the tablet that was controlling it.”

No Doubt

Because digital forensics in drone technology amounted to an emerging field within another emerging field, Reynolds and his team encountered plenty of skepticism.

“We’d achieved whatever the American dream might be, a consistent job and career path,” says Reynolds. “When you look at that and decide to start something different, you get all sorts of criticism, about everything from inconsistent paychecks to having to pump your life savings into something that may or may not work.”

Overcoming doubts required the VTO founders to summon a similar courage to what Reynolds and Watson found on the rock face in Tulsa. “Once you walk off the edge of a cliff, you’ve got to keep going,” Reynolds says. “It’s a lot more trouble to get back up.”

The kinds of customers VTO was seeking made things even tougher. Securing contracts from the federal government requires jumping through quite a few hoops, which is harder for small companies with limited resources.

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The process began with submitting a paper that needed to be peer-reviewed. From there, the VTO founders needed to spend money on consultants and tools to show the government the company could do what it said, all while still doing work on the side to feed their families. The fact that Watson was a known industry expert helped a little, but VTO still had to undergo a full Department of Defense audit of its accounting department, which was essentially one person. But Reynolds pushed forward. “We had to write policies and procedures for a company that frankly wasn’t really set up yet,” he says.

With that perseverance, VTO was successful in securing a research-and-development contract for more than $900,000 for its drone forensics last July, a little more than a year after the founders conceived of the company and just two months after it officially launched. As part of its contract, VTO will create a website where law enforcement officials and forensics specialists can learn how to collect data from professional and consumer drones.

The founders’ resolve and ingenuity continue to serve them well. More recently, VTO secured a second contract with Homeland Security, this one focused on the kind of data that can be extracted from damaged phones. The idea came to Watson, VTO’s CTO, after he became curious about devices that had been submerged in water. “Steve looks at a problem that other people say can’t be solved and thinks of three different ways he wants to solve it,” says Reynolds. “Then he’ll test them all until he finds one that works.”

For Reynolds, that entrepreneurial spirit and confidence to try unconventional approaches all comes back to Chandler Park: “The fight and the struggle and having to climb up the mountain in order to jump makes the descent so much better.”


This story was created with and commissioned by Hiscox, which specializes in small-business insurance. Its mission is helping the courageous overcome the impossible. 

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