The leaders of Netizen Corporation, one of the newest clients at the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, have nothing but praise and gratitude for the benefits the program and the region provides them. That’s because they are growing. Fast.
“If we only get 20 percent of the bids we have out right now, we’ll need space for eight or nine new people by the end of this year in this area alone, in addition to those we have currently,” says Mike Hawkins, founder of the still-fledgling firm that is already making a name for itself in the software and cyber-security fields. “I can see 12 to 14 people here (in the Lehigh Valley) eventually and we will be hiring in Seattle, Virginia and Texas, likely this year. We will be hiring all over the country, but we want to keep as much of the work here as possible.”
Founded just a year-and-a-half ago, Netizen is the brainchild of Hawkins and Max Harris, both U.S. Army veterans with backgrounds in law enforcement, military intelligence, cyber-security and software development. Unlike most other software companies that view security almost as an afterthought, Netizen “bakes it in” to every product, says Hawkins, a New York state native who came to the Lehigh Valley when he married an Allentown girl.
The partners have leveraged their military experience and government connections to garner work with federal agencies,, including the Departments of Justice, Defense and Veterans Affairs. They also do business in the Finance, Healthcare, Manufacturing, and eCommerce industries.
“The fact that we are veteran-owned gives us a solid advantage on the government side because we get preferred vendor status,” Hawkins explains. “We already have about $4.5 to $5 million in bids out now and we are meeting this month with senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss establishing a game-changing software security pilot project for them designed to protect veterans’ data.”
Netizen has its roots in Hawkins’ lifelong passion for coding and Internet security. He has been creating and testing web applications since his teen years in the 1990s, and completed a degree in Computer Science after leaving the military. Though his primary military assignment was law enforcement, once his superiors discovered his skill for software and web development, he was often put to work creating websites, performing data analysis and managing IT systems for his units. He has also worked previously for the VA, where he managed multi-million dollar software engineering programs as part of former Secretary Shinseki’s initiatives to transform the 350,000-employee agency through technology.
Harris, a former NSA-cleared Military Intelligence specialist, is a Defense Language Institute trained Arabic linguist with a background in Signals and Human Intelligence, Counter-Intelligence/Counter-
“I started the company with the idea of doing simply government contract work, but that has since expanded to include some potential product offerings in the cyber security realm,” says Hawkins, who met Harris at a Lehigh Valley Hackathon where Harris was seeking to involve more veterans in the technology fields. “One of our goals is to involve more veterans in cyber-security.”
They met Anthony Durante, the Program Manager at Bridgeworks, through Lehigh Valley Tech and he brought them into the incubator program. “We needed some office space that was more permanent for security clearance purposes, especially when we started bidding on government projects,” Hawkins explains. “I think the biggest advantage we have here is that the area is pretty greenfield. Being the only IT shop in the building and being one of very few specialists in cyber and software security within the Lehigh Valley has its advantages and we have already picked up some notable clients because of it. We have also garnered interest in adjacent metro areas, such as from Goldman Sachs in New York City.”
Being in the Lehigh Valley also has other advantages, he says, especially when it comes to government contracts. Because the cost of living is so much lower than the Washington, D.C. region, Netizen can often underbid larger competitors yet still pay their employees “a very good wage.” They also work with many local companies, such as DAY Vision Marketing, First Generation, and MTS Ventures in addition to partnering strategically with companies such as Sungard, SAIC, Booz Allen, Lockheed Martin, and InetU.
They often partner with other firms offering complementary solutions to combine resources and compete against larger companies and as a way to drive collaborative innovation, “I call it ‘coop-etition’ and we find the local environment to be very supportive,” Hawkins says.