Rochester based Startup Token's Token ring, a wearable tech device for password storage.

One New York State Startup is Redefining the Future of Wearable Devices

State support and local talent help company make waves with innovative technology

As our digital lives become increasingly complex, proving who we are online can feel like a full-time job. Until a simpler, more secure solution comes along, our digital identities – padlocked by inadequate passwords on massive servers with hundreds of millions of other identities – will remain at risk.

For Token, a New York startup with deep roots in Rochester’s revitalized technology community, the answer is to put the only key a consumer will need right back in their hands.

With early and critical financial help from the state while participating in Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) Venture Creations incubator, Token created a sleek, sophisticated, wear-it-and-forget-it ring that proves its wearer’s identity with a simple tap or wave, a game-changing category in wearable devices. Most wearables available on the market now are simply trackers that interact or communicate with other digital devices, usually through WiFi; this is the first wearable that solves an entirely new problem.

The Token Ring

Token unifies the way consumers prove their identity, free of keys, cards, badges and passwords.

Securing access to both digital and physical points of entry, the Token ring can also be used to buy groceries, scan subway fares, unlock computers and even unlock keyless front doors and cars.

A $1.75 million-dollar investment from New York Ventures, the venture capital investment arm of Empire State Development, gave the young company a running start as it mapped out its first product’s development cycle and launch.

Token’s military-grade secure technology, explains CEO and co-founder Melanie Shapiro, is made possible by a proprietary combination of asymmetric cryptography and biometrics.

“It’s a challenge-response: whatever you’re trying to get into, it will ask, ‘is this you?’” she explains. “Token simply passes back a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ It doesn’t require any other information.”

The ring’s owner controls everything with a fingerprint scan each morning and simple gestures throughout the day. If the Token ring is taken off, only the owner's fingerprint will turn it back on.

The company’s most pressing goal, however, is not just to make people’s digital lives simpler and safer. The bigger problem, Shapiro says, is a fundamental flaw in the way personal identities are stored online.

“All we have is our identity, and the way we prove who we are right now is completely broken,” Shapiro says. “Identity is such a multi-faceted problem. It’s not just your medical report. It’s not just your passwords: it’s you and everything about you. It doesn’t belong on some massive server that makes us even more vulnerable. As the number of digital interactions we have increases exponentially every year, our risk of being attacked and corrupted along with hundreds of millions of others will only grow as well.”

Shapiro, inspired to act by her own frustration in managing multiple gateways to her digital identity, founded the company in 2017 with her husband Stephen Shapiro, Token’s CTO.

“It was a very personal pain point for me,” she says. “The more I had to carry around and also protect, from bank accounts and online networks to my building and apartment keys and even my car key, which was digital, the more I had to remember just to prove who I was. I’ve always felt, as an entrepreneur, if you don’t feel the pain of the problem you’re trying to solve yourself, it’s going to be difficult for you to understand your customer’s pain.”

Although she majored in fine arts as an undergraduate at RIT, Shapiro says the startup never set out to create a piece of jewelry.

“We set out to solve this problem. The ring came about because we knew that in order for a massive behavioral shift to work, the consumer’s daily routine has to feel as familiar as all the other habits that have become so ingrained, like pulling out a credit card or digging in your bag for keys – everything we do with our hands.

“We knew our solution would need to be somehow part of that habitual movement. Since there’s a fingerprint scanner on the inside, what better place to put a device than on your finger?”

Rochester based Startup Token's Token ring, a wearable tech device for password storage.

The first versions of the unisex ring, in sterling silver, black rhodium or rose gold, were in the hands of beta testers in late 2018 and will begin selling for $249 - $299 this year.

 

Deciding how to fit such a critical transaction into such a small space required much more than a vision, she adds.

“I would go on record to say that it is probably the greatest engineering challenge that anyone in our company has ever had,” Shapiro says. “There are 84 components inside of a product the size of a wedding band. There is a battery, and a bluetooth chip, and a fingerprint scanner. For all of that to fit inside such a tiny and beautiful package, it required some very, very brilliant and creative engineering talent.”

Nearly all of that brilliance and creativity comes directly from RIT.

Group shot of members of Rochester-based startup company Token

Melanie Shapiro, CEO (middle, eighth from the right) with the Token team including more than a dozen creative engineers and technologists.

 

With multiple RIT degrees between them, the Shapiros continue to be deeply invested in the university’s engineering talent, first discovered through the Venture Creations incubator.

“The co-op program that RIT has developed means that when I am looking at a resume of a 22-year-old straight out of college from RIT, and I’m looking at a similar resume of someone right out of Harvard, I know that the student from RIT has a year of experience already,” she says. “They’ve worked in a lab and on real projects before. We had people who worked at Tesla before coming here.”

Token has also filled several of its executive positions with veterans of Rochester’s technology community, a natural fit Shapiro is passionate about promoting.

“There’s still a big stigma around [tech] companies built outside of Silicon Valley, and as a business owner in upstate New York, I feel such an important responsibility to help bring those companies out into the world. I’m proud we have this kind of talent all right here in Rochester.”

For more information on New York Ventures, visit https://esd.ny.gov/doing-business-ny/venture-capital; or to learn more about Token, visit https://tokenring.com/.