You've got mail: but is Tovaris secure?

Local tech company Tovaris makes email secure, but its own future, it seems, has plenty of question marks.

When it was started in 1999, Tovaris' potential seemed limitless– at least to the bevy of area investors who lined up to be part of the email encrypting company.

In April 2001, internetnews.com reported on a $1.4 million investment from local scientist and venture capitalist Samuel Patterson. "The Internet security market is poised to explode in the coming months, and Tovaris is uniquely positioned to capitalize financially on that opportunity," Patterson said at the time.

But things turned ugly late last year when Richmond-based lender Triad LC, headed up by venture capitalist Ivor Massey Jr. , called its million-dollar loan.

When notice of the Tovaris foreclosure hit the legal pages in December, it took even Tovaris investors by surprise.

"Ooh, f–-," replied Gabe Silverman in early December 2002, when informed by a Hook reporter of the impending foreclosure.

Silverman had more to lose than just his investment. He was also the company's landlord. Tovaris was leasing space on the Downtown Mall (ironically, in the same spot where Working Weekly soared and then slumped).

Earlier this year, Silverman says Tovaris left "in the middle of night," i.e. without giving notice, moving into offices in the pink warehouse on South Street previously occupied by a website design firm called emorphic.

As of earlier this week, the Tovaris website still listed one open position for a senior software design engineer. And Tovaris' salesperson Frank Trimble says it's business as usual in the new office.

When pressed, scorned lender Massey says there's even more to the story.

The $1 million loan was due in February 2002, Massey says, and he gave the company 10 months before foreclosing. At the December 20 foreclosure auction, Massey says, Triad LC, of which he is managing partner, took control of all the intellectual property and the rights to use the Tovaris name. "It's a new company," Massey says.

And as for Silverman's "middle of the night" allegation, Massey says the landlord "was aware of the company's situation and was hardly surprised that it went out of business."

But is there a market for these products?

"The software has been improved and has resulted in significant sales," Massey says, "but it's been a brutal path to get there."

A Tovaris press release touts the fact that a Roanoke-based law firm, Woods, Rogers & Hazlegrove, as well as a publicly held health-care company, Texoma, have recently purchased Tovaris systems. So can Tovaris survive?

One local computer expert thinks it's unlikely. Lorin Jameson, president of computer game development studio Lodestone Games LLC, says he's not surprised Tovaris' service didn't catch on.

"It's a silly idea," says Jameson. "They are offering a service that people can get for a lot less."

He cites PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) as an example of inexpensive software that offers 128-bit encryption, a level secure enough even for most banking and government transactions. "It would take a supercomputer running numbers for a long, long time," Jameson says, to decode such an encrypted message.

PGP is free to individuals, but can be obtained for corporate use for as little as $50 per person. Though Trimble says Tovaris' pricing information is confidential, reliable sources say the system starts at around $15K and goes up from there. A hefty price point indeed– and perhaps too steep for some.

"In my mind," says Jameson, "Tovaris never justified the additional overhead involved with implementing the Tovaris system."

But Trimble says it's apples and oranges. "We're server based," he explains. "They're client-side." In other words, he says, "PGP isn't feasible for a 10,000-seat corporation."

But the bottom line, as always, is attracting customers. If Tovaris can rack up additional sales, Massey says, "There's a possibility it will be a successful organization."

Like so many other tech companies from the dot-com bubble, however, Tovaris faces an uphill battle. And so do those left with red ink splashed all over their Tovaris investment.

"A number of people are considering putting a lawsuit against Tovaris," says Silverman.