Digital Start-ups - College of Engineering & Computer Science

Alumni invest in digital start-ups

The need for digital security and data protection grows exponentially as society shifts to an online marketplace. Two computer science alumni have designed their livelihood around web security, and their entrepreneurial ventures have garnered the attention of businesses nationwide.

Alex Pezold (MS ’03) set his sights on a TU graduate degree in computer science after earning a bachelor’s from the University of Oklahoma and beginning his career at a Tulsa company. However, he discovered the position lacked a certain spark he was searching for in information technology. His introduction to a few TU faculty members persuaded him to apply to the Cyber Corps program.

“I became enamored with technology, and unless you are a developer, there’s not a whole lot of creativity involved,” Pezold said. “Information security breaks those boundaries, and I was pretty excited about getting out of corporate America and moving into more of an art.”

After completing the Cyber Corps training, he spent two years working for the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Later, Pezold served in the information security departments at Anheuser-Busch and MasterCard in St. Louis, Missouri. While his wife’s career and other opportunities led Pezold home to Tulsa and then Chicago, he kept in touch with fellow TU alumnus Jerald Dawkins (MS ’03, PhD ’05). The excitement surrounding daily advancements in digital technology inspired Pezold and Dawkins to join forces. So on the back of a napkin one day at a Tulsa Starbuck’s, the pair mapped out a business plan.

“The agreement was if I helped Jerry with his company, True Digital Security, he would help me with TokenEx,” Pezold said. “We spent the first three or four years building the TokenEx technology and growing the business (for True Digital Security).”

Although Dawkins isn’t a Cyber Corps graduate, he too was experienced in securing federal organizations. He had turned down a position in Washington, D.C., because he wanted to generate similar positions in Tulsa.

“There wasn’t much opportunity for our skillset in Tulsa, and I thought if I could tap our resources and capabilities, we could continue to serve the nation in a slightly different capacity in Oklahoma,” Dawkins said.

Alumni Jerry Dawkins and Alex Pezold

He reached out to his colleagues and learned they also had a vision to move back home, start families in Oklahoma and work to secure the nation’s public and private information infrastructures. As a result, the information security services firm True Digital Security was established in 2004 to assist organizations in creating and operating efficient information security programs. Based in Tulsa, the company remains closely tied to the federal government and provides information security and compliance services to government agencies and private sector corporations of all sizes, across a broad range of industries.

True Digital Security’s early mission focused on simply educating customers about the risks and challenges involved in preventing data theft. Dawkins said digital security is not only a technology problem, but also a people and process problem; and entities are beginning to take notice.

“For boards of directors, information security is now an item they’re interested in, and they’re challenging their organizations to answer questions about building a stronger security program,” he said. “It has enabled our business to grow, and we’re excited about building something here in Oklahoma that supports customers across the nation.”

With True Digital Security firmly established, Pezold and Dawkins began the development phase of TokenEx in 2010.

“Information security is generally viewed as a roadblock or hindrance,” he said. “It carries the connotation of disrupting business or unnecessary regulation and expenses, but it is our mission to deliver information security technologies that can actually enable businesses to function in a more secure and efficient manner.”

TokenEx is a cloud-based security platform that offers tokenization, encryption and data vaulting, while providing compatibility to payment processors and card-reader devices. Streams of surrogate data sets, also known as tokens, instantly replace sensitive payment, personal and health data in business systems. If an online security breach occurs, these tokens are useless to hackers and malware bots.

“We offer unlimited flexibility in how our customers can securely send data to TokenEx, store it and secure it within our environment,” Pezold said. “We take their sensitive data out of their environment and place it on our platform, reducing cost, risk and compliance burden.”

TokenEx customers include retail businesses, insurance companies and nonprofit organizations. From a large Fortune 10 company to a small start-up, Pezold said clients of all sizes benefit from TokenEx services. “It’s an entrepreneurial type of solution — a sweet spot. We’re accommodating a very sizeable customer base while creating a very small footprint.”

Dawkins said True Digital Security and TokenEx complement each other while presenting a unified campaign to promote Oklahoma enterprise. With Dawkins in Tulsa and Pezold in Oklahoma City, the alumni hope to attract clients to their home state.

“Alex is solving problems that my customers are having, and we both really thrive off each other,” Dawkins said. “He’s doing business all over the world and has the ability to put minds at ease about using a start-up company in Tulsa. People on the east and west coasts underestimate the capabilities we have here in the Midwest.”

With a sky-is-the-limit mentality, these Oklahomans eagerly are expanding their ventures both together and as individual entrepreneurs. The partnership continues to prove a valuable asset to not only digital security worldwide, but also the momentum of Oklahoma start-ups.