An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Paige Johnson (founder and CEO) of Ten-Nine Technologies, which was honored in our:
- 2022 Best Tech Startups in Oklahoma
- 2022 Best Tech Startups in Tulsa
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Oklahoma
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Tulsa
Tell us the origin story of Ten-Nine Technologies – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
Ten-Nine Technologies started in a backroom of our first angel investor’s warehouse without so much as a lab sink, but with a vision to make new materials to enable new economies. As a chemist, I was tired of the academic style of research that encourages deep but narrow expertise and I wanted to think broadly and without boundaries about solving the big problems of the world in sustainable ways. I purposed to only use practical synthetic methods that I knew I could scale, instead of the exotic and heroic methods that more often lead to journal publications. I was also committed to only working in the ‘friendly’ portions of the periodic table, where low hazards and abundant material supplies would enable a sustainable manufacturing approach and a viable business model. Those founding principals begot a novel family of materials from which our flagship battery cathode material, branded TENIX™, was developed as our go-to-market entry. When used as an additive to current cathode materials, it enables longer lifetimes and increased rates of charge and discharge over traditional batteries, and is produced in a net zero carbon footprint with no direct fossil fuel emissions!
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Our greatest hurdle has been overcoming biases in the capital markets. Unfortunately, these affect ALL founders. I thought super awesome science would overcome that bias, but it didn’t. It’s well known that only 2.3% of US venture capital goes to women, that only 1.59% of that capital flows into energy funding, and only 20.1% of that flows to woman-only founded companies, and Ten-Nine is all of those! We are also in a state that receives very little federal funding. Most of our capital support has come from the Midwest, and from people of wealth rather than traditional venture capital sources.
What does the future hold for Ten-Nine Technologies?
We’re excited to finally be at early-market entry, and shipping product! Our pilot plant represents a 10,000x scaling of our original laboratory synthesis, and we’re already planning the next stage of production. Reaching tonnage scale puts us ahead of other new tech battery companies that have hundreds of millions more in investment dollars than we do, and validates our founding principals of practicality and sustainability. We’re now supplying TENIX™ for testing and evaluation to battery manufacturers and OEMs that we anticipate will lead over time to supply agreements. We’re also developing a Battery Technology Training and Employment (BTEch) workforce training program. This program is designed to serve not only the unique needs of our growing business, but also provide a mechanism to engage underserved and underemployed communities in the Tulsa-area, including the Tribal Nations, historically Black communities, and displaced fossil fuel workers by offering stable, long-term employment opportunities
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Tulsa?
It has come a long way! When Ten-Nine was founded in 2014, there was very little local support for entrepreneurs. Since then, a variety of sites and support systems have made Tulsa a vibrant area for startup development. Tulsa’s low cost of living enables new companies to stretch their dollars to achieve their goals in a location where quality of life (restaurants, entertainment, greenspaces) is still quite high. One of Ten-Nine’s first locations was in Tulsa’s vibrant Greenwood District, the site of Tulsa’s historic Black Wall Street and the notorious Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. We sought to learn from that complex social history and it remains a strong influence on our company culture and ideals. It’s exciting to have reached a point of corporate development at which we can think deeply about how we embody our values of “Curiosity, Generosity and Authenticity” in tangible strategies such as workforce development and equity planning. We’re proud to have a highly diverse workforce, largely composed of native Tulsans, that far surpasses the demographic averages for high tech companies. In 2021, Ten-Nine Technologies helped found the Tulsa Renewable Business Alliance, a coalition of local companies engaged in renewable and clean energy work in Tulsa, including startups! I hope we can make the pathway easier for those entrepreneurs who come after us.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Bloom where you’re planted. Silicon Valley may get all the press, but Ten-Nine wouldn’t have lasted three months there on our initial angel investment of $100,000. In Tulsa, I made that last nearly two years, so don’t neglect to seek out local sources of capital. Every community has wealthy people, many of whom are looking for investments, and their commitment to their hometown will add an extra layer of commitment to your company that no out-of-town venture group can match.