Tulsa’s tech boom: City’s tech industry might not be loud, but it’s growing
By Robert Evatt
© 2015 BH Media Group Holdings, Inc.
When Apple released its jumbo-sized 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the company touted a number of apps it felt would work well on it. One of these was Whiteboard.
Whiteboard, which is also available on Android and other iOS devices, is an organizational app that, among other features, breaks up to-do lists by what can be accomplished each day and allows groups to collaborate on tasks.
Since its official launch in September, the Whiteboard app has been featured in 108 places in the Apple app store, according to Whiteboard co-founder Kayvon Olomi.
It was also created in Tulsa.
Olomi said dozens of creative tech companies have sprung up in Tulsa in recent years. Most of them are still small and relatively unknown.
“There’s a lot of cool companies the community should be proud of, but they aren’t going around tooting their own horns,” he said.
These new entrepreneurs are helping to expand the number of tech jobs within the Tulsa area. Brien Thorstenberg, senior vice president of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said the number of jobs at organizations strictly defined as tech companies has now grown to 7,500.
And demand continues to grow. John Hale, a professor at the University of Tulsa’s Tandy School of Computer Science — one of the area’s biggest producers of skilled tech professionals — said graduates now have more opportunities in their backyard.
“We’re seeing more students stay here,” he said. “Some will stay here for a few years and move on, but it used to be a higher proportion would leave the area. There are more opportunities now.”
Said Thorstenberg: “They’re very high-quality jobs. They bring in an educated workforce, and they raise the average salary for the area.”
Mark Lauinger, senior vice president with i2E, a statewide nonprofit organization that works to promote the development of innovative small businesses, said tech jobs in Tulsa had been heavily slanted toward software development and information technology.
But that’s starting to change.
“I’ve seen a steady increase in other types of technology opportunities, such as in mobile apps,” he said. “We’re even seeing some opportunity in the oil and gas industry. Slowly but surely, the oil field is digitizing.”
Hale said he’s seen a number of tech companies pop up that are dedicated to health care or life sciences.
“It used to be, in my field, you would be a programmer,” he said. “Now there’s so many other options.”
Olomi said the national tech boom has helped inspire local entrepreneurs to create their own companies. But while innovative opportunities are being explored, the scattershot nature of these new companies can leave the local tech scene feeling fractured.
“On the surface, you feel like the community is nonexistent,” Olomi said. “But once you start digging deeper, there’s some amazing technologies being developed.”
Lauinger said the Tulsa area doesn’t yet have some of the advantages bigger cities have when it comes to attracting more tech talent, such as research universities or large, innovative companies like Google or Apple that can generate a kind of Halo effect.
But at the same time, he doesn’t feel Tulsa needs to join the Silicon Valley quest to find a new “unicorn” — a company that has the potential to acquire a value of $1 billion or more.
“We’re sticking to our knitting,” Lauinger said. “We’re not seeing someone wanting to create the next Google in Tulsa.”
A growing business
Olomi said that, despite the growing interest in home-grown tech, it’s still hard to find qualified tech workers in Tulsa. For Whiteboard, he collaborates with contributors in San Francisco and London.
But he doesn’t believe it’s a matter of skilled tech workers not wanting to stay in Tulsa. Instead, he feels the shortage is stemming from the high demand of the tech boom.
“Considering how hot the market is, it’s hard to find talent,” Olomi said. “That’s a situation you’ll be faced with anywhere you go.”
Lauinger said the development of attractions for both young workers and families is helping to make Tulsa a more attractive spot for workers, and the low cost of living is becoming a stronger draw as inflation hits hot areas like San Francisco and Austin.
“Some of the luster has come off the star in Austin,” he said. “People are starting to wonder where they can live with a strong cost of living.”
Lauinger feels one of the biggest obstacles remaining is the relative lack of capital coming in from governments and angel investors to help fund ambitious new companies.
“I keep hearing that we’d get more deals if we had more capital, but the reality is, we’ll get more capital when we get better opportunities,” he said.
Tulsa is getting more support systems for tech companies. The new 36degreesNorth entrepreneurship center plans to help get new businesses off the ground, Tulsa’s Young Professionals’ program The Forge continues to incubate businesses, and i2E is providing assistance and money to new start-ups.
In 2014 i2E distributed over $1.5 million to Tulsa-area start-ups, Lauinger said.
Thorstenberg said tech companies will be one of the key industries the chamber will focus on in their efforts to attract new jobs to the area.
“Tech is growing,” he said. “We’re working on a number of partner groups to help boost the jobs.”
Tulsa’s Hot Tech Firms
ICEdot has created a crash sensor for helmets that detects forces consistent with head injury and notifies emergency contacts of the owners GPS coordinates via text message.
Provides remote well site video monitoring, reporting, alerts and data storage for petroleum pumpers, owners and operators.
Synercon has developed a patented universal device to quickly and accurately recover “black box” data from large trucks and buses after accidents.
Developed a high pressure fuel storage system for multiple purposes, including to give natural gas vehicles more driving range than current technology on the market.
|Valve Systems International
VSI has designed a valve employing an actuation system that has reduced internal erosion potential of severe service valves. This permits the valve to exceed the performance of current control valves in the severe service market.
Makers of fire suppression products for the airline industry that suppress the hottest burning fires, such as lithium and magnesium fires, more effectively and safely than current technology.
Provides a tool that reveals the cost of medical procedures offered by hospital or medical office, allowing employees to get lower-cost health care.
Ramblen publishes a website that provides crowd-sourced information for travelers looking for athletic and healthy living options when traveling to other cities.