Magnet Forensics' founder, Jad Saliba; photograph by Derek Shapton; location courtesy of University of Waterloo Library Magnet Forensics' founder, Jad Saliba; photograph by Derek Shapton; location courtesy of University of Waterloo Library

It sounds like an episode of CSI—but in super-slow motion. In Jad Saliba’s former life as a forensic examiner with the Waterloo Regional Police Service, he spent weeks manually sifting through computer chat, email, web and social-networking histories. His mission: to find digital trails that would help him crack criminal cases.

“It was like looking for the needle in the haystack,” says Saliba, a self-taught programmer who left a promising career as a software developer six years ago in order to work in a police job where he could make a difference. “I would spend a month sorting through a thousand email messages—and come up with nothing.” Meanwhile, the thieves and pedophiles Saliba and his colleagues were trying to find and lock up were getting away with their crimes.

So, in 2007, Saliba made it personal. During his off-hours, he began developing software that would search confiscated hard drives dramatically faster and more reliably than manual searches. Saliba left the police force in 2009 to launch Waterloo, Ont.-based JAD Software Inc. (which was renamed Magnet Forensics Inc. in August 2012). By combining Saliba’s forensics and software know-how with a wealth of product-development feedback from forensic examiners around the world, Magnet became an international leader in electronic data recovery. That led to two-year revenue growth of 549% and the No. 16 ranking on the 2012 HOT 50.

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Saliba laid the foundation for Magnet’s success with painstaking, late-night work in the basement of his Waterloo home. He steadily enhanced his Internet Evidence Finder (IEF) software by adding new search capabilities, from Facebook and webmail to Twitter and Google+, and by making the interface easier to use. IEF can retrieve data from a suspect’s hard drive even after it has been deleted, and it can search more formats than the sole rival product, which costs almost twice as much.

By automating the laborious process of recovering data, Saliba cut search times from weeks to hours. But he knew that if his software didn’t track key details, such as where each piece of evidence is stored on a hard drive, and format its reports in a judge-friendly way, police departments wouldn’t buy in. Says Saliba: “If the data can’t stand up in court, it’s useless.”

In a prescient move, he shared early versions of IEF for free with police departments around the world. “I knew police needed it,” says Saliba. His peers repaid Saliba with extensive feedback he used to make vital improvements to the software, such as ensuring that it would be able to read scraps of data and parts of keywords in cases in which evidence had been partially destroyed.

Fellow police officers also flooded Saliba with letters of appreciation about using the software to prosecute murderers and kidnappers. The kudos gave Saliba the encouragement he needed to focus solely on his business. In 2009, Saliba began charging non-law enforcement clients, such as businesses that want to check up on employee use of social networking, a nominal fee for the software.

In October 2011, Adam Belsher, a veteran sales and marketing excutive Saliba had met through his accountant, left Research In Motion to become Magnet’s CEO. Belsher soon persuaded Saliba, now the company’s chief technology officer, to adopt a new pricing strategy that would accelerate the firm’s growth. Magnet now sells IEF for a one-off fee of $1,000, and offers instant updates for $300 per year. Belsher says about 95% of clients—including the FBI, CIA, RCMP and U.S. Homeland Security—have switched from free to paid.

Saliba credits the success of the move to a paid model—and a substantial price at that—to his credentials as a police officer: “Law enforcement trusts law enforcement.”

Saliba and his small team of developers continue to draw on user feedback to help them improve the product. By tapping into this sort of input every step of the way, Saliba has ensured he’s offering a product too useful to go without.

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