By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2019, The Oklahoman
As I talk daily with Oklahoma’s entrepreneurs, elected officials and investors, I have yet to find one single person who does not agree that economic diversification is critical to our state’s future.
However, as easy as it may be to gain agreement that economic diversification is a goal, it is quite a different matter to achieve it as a priority.
With deeply rooted commitment, the coordination of many moving parts and considerable resources from both public and private sectors, new industries can and are being built in Oklahoma. Bioscience is a case in point as well as our state’s bold and expanding information technology industry, with cybersecurity becoming an especially bright star.
New industries require groundbreaking companies and core expertise. In cybersecurity, with the University of Tulsa and TokenEX, an industry leader in data security, Oklahoma has both.
For nearly 20 years, TU has been a National Security Agency Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance and Cyber Defense Education, one of the first 14 institutions so recognized.
TokenEx was founded by two data security experts who first met at TU working on advanced degrees in computer science. TokenEx founders Alex Pezold and Jerald Dawkins, Ph.D., learned from some of the best cybersecurity experts in the world.
After graduation, and time working in other companies, the pair became inspired to create a technology based on tokenization to combat data theft. (At a basic level, tokenization is when sensitive data, typically credit card numbers, is swapped with a randomized number in the same format.)
“We had an idea that we believed could solve a big problem in the data security industry and about a quarter of a million dollars in private funding from friends and family to get us started,” Pezold said.
TokenEx received Technology Business Finance Program (TBFP) funding and an OARs research grant from OCAST (Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology).
“TBFP was awesome for us,” Pezold said. “Friends and family rounds, TBFP, and OCAST OARS were the instruments we used for capital until we started generating revenue. Over the course of time, we paid back the TBFP in full.”
Today, TokenEx provides enterprise solutions to Fortune 500 corporations as well as mid-size and smaller firms. The company has created more than 30 jobs within the state and pulls in revenue from as far away as India. Last year TokenEx was named to the INC 5,000 list of the fastest growing private companies in America.
“Oklahoma is the hotbed of data security,” Pezold said. “There is more than a million person shortage in cybersecurity. With TU investing in the vision of a cybersecurity corridor, we are going to see only growth from this industry in Tulsa.”
TokenEx is a case study in the impact of Oklahoma’s initiatives — OCAST research grants, seed capital through the TBFP fund and venture services from i2E — for supporting advanced technology startups and for priming new industries.
But it takes more than support for companies in growth industries to succeed. It takes a product that solves a real customer need and customers to adopt to that product.
TokenEx has made it over that hurdle. TokenEx is an Oklahoma company that’s creating jobs and spearheading cybersecurity, a new “boom” industry in our state.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org