Multi-year, $50 million commitment by GKFF boosts Tulsa Innovation Labs’ effort to transform city into tech hub

The George Kaiser Family Foundation is investing $50 million toward making the city of Tulsa a technology hub.

Revealed Wednesday, the commitment coincides with the release of a GKFF-backed Tulsa Innovation Labs (TIL) report that identifies the city’s five most promising tech clusters: virtual health, energy tech, drones, cyber and analytics.

“It’s bold. It’s ambitious and we mean business,” Nicholas Lalla, co-founder and managing director of TIL, said by phone Wednesday. “Tulsa has talked about developing an innovation economy over the past few years, generating a lot of excitement with cyber, for example. You see the great buzz coming out of the engagement with Tesla. Great things are happening in Tulsa. The community has great aspirations for itself, and rightly so.”

The $50 million sum is derived from several ongoing commitments — such as Tulsa Remote — and other long-term initiatives centered on workforce, education and talent recruitment and development, a GKFF official said.

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Recognizing that future jobs are rooted in an innovation economy, TIL was founded earlier this year to develop a multi-phase, city-wide strategy that positions Tulsa as a tech hub.

“The universities and start-ups and corporates in town are doing really great work,” Lalla said. “We see TIL’s role as really connecting dots, filling in ecosystem gaps, building partnerships and creating new initiatives that bring people together and push things forward on the innovation front.”

TIL worked with global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company to identify specific tech clusters with high-growth opportunities in Tulsa. In collaboration with stakeholders, TIL will translate its analyses into a suite of new programming design to spur growth in priority industries, support start-ups, ignite academic innovation and develop local talent.

“We spent a lot of time and effort developing these top five opportunities,” Lalla said. “So we certainly will be using these as our organizing principles for TIL. We recognize that this is a long-term endeavor. Cities don’t become tech hubs overnight … The great news is that there are so many existing assets and energy and momentum in Tulsa already that we are really looking to push the needle over the next two to three years.”

“This report isn’t going to sit on the shelf. We really see this as a playbook for action. We have our marching orders and we have great ideas from community and industry and university partners. So over the next few months, we’re going to be translating this analysis into action.”

The report evaluated multiple tech industries to identify the highest growth and most contestable areas for Tulsa. TIL prioritized opportunities that would create inclusive, high-paying jobs in both the near and long-terms and built preliminary action plans to catalyze growth in each area.

TIL plans on prioritizing its virtual health and workforce activities in cyber and analytics in phase one, and new programming and project opportunities in that phase will be announced later this year.

As part of the study, TIL gained the perspectives of at least 100 stakeholders. A Tulsa-based charitable organization, GKFF, through public and private partnerships, has spearheaded many high-impact projects, including the urban park Gathering Place.

“GKFF’s core focus is early intervention in the cycle of poverty,” Ken Levit, executive director of GKFF, said in a statement. “But we know that to provide long-term opportunities for Tulsa’s families, we need to invest in our local economy and prepare Tulsa for the jobs of the future. That’s why we’re excited about supporting Tulsa Innovation Labs. TIL is going to be instrumental in creating a thriving and inclusive economy that creates new opportunities for Tulsans.”

Local leaders already have begun implementing programs to spark innovation and develop talent. Among them are a doctoral fellowship in cyber and a coding academy.

TIL is partnering with the University of Tulsa to bring a leading cyber venture creation company, Team8, to Tulsa. Founded in Tel Aviv, with a large New York City office, Team8 is collaborating with 10 doctoral students each year to create cyber-related companies from their research projects. The fellowship provides incentives for fellows to stay in Tulsa upon graduation and pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions.

“The University of Tulsa is known for its excellence in cyber,” Nadav Zafrif, founder and CEO of Team8, said in a statement. “Taking academic research and leveraging that to create new businesses will feed Tulsa’s burgeoning innovation economy. This type of partnership, between the university, Tulsa Innovation Labs, and Team8 represents a new model for commercializing innovation and spurring economic growth.”

In addition, the Holberton School, a software engineering academy based in San Francisco, launched its third U.S. campus in Tulsa in January. At scale, Holberton will graduate 500 software engineers annually.

“Having diverse backgrounds and experiences in the workplace makes for better business decisions, more responsive products, and a more inclusive ecosystem,” Libby Wuller, executive director of Holberton School-Tulsa, said in a statement. “As Tulsa strives to build a tech-enabled economy, we must do so with a diverse workforce. At Holberton, our deferred tuition model and living assistance program aim to create pathways to the software engineering profession regardless of an individual’s circumstances.”

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Rhett Morgan


Twitter: @RhettMorganTW

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