Hayden Blackburn said he’s embracing change as executive director of Tech Fort Worth, an organization that helps people launch and grow businesses with emerging technology.

He sees Tech Fort Worth’s 25th birthday as an impressive feat for an organization of its kind. And he’s thinking about ways to make it relevant for years to come.

“It’s a big opportunity to look at how we evolve into better support and serve,” Blackburn said. 

Tech Fort Worth was created in 1998 with the goal of diversifying Fort Worth’s economy outside of the defense and aerospace industry, through building technology-focused startups. Now, the organization’s leaders, past and present, are reflecting on the organization’s past successes and looking to the future to continue that mission.

During his seven years as executive director, Blackburn has already had to embrace change. He led the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown in 2020 and shifted all programs online, knowing more people would want to start businesses during that period. 

Membership increased between 2020 and 2022. In 2022, the organization supported companies that created 221 employees and $16 million in sales, according to Tech Fort Worth’s latest impact report. 

Another focus was forming partnerships — through grants with the U.S. Department of Defense and Economic Development Administration and universities such as Tarleton State University.

“We always communicated. … Collaboration is one of our core values,” Blackburn said. “And we really started to look at what collaboration means to us. It’s more of like, ‘No lone wolves.’” 

Creating ripple effects 

Tech Fort Worth has evolved and changed over the years. When Darlene Boudreaux, now chief financial officer of Tech Fort Worth, stepped into her role as executive director at the time in 2006, she said the office was empty. So she shifted the primary focus of the program to the life science industry while also keeping an eye on patented emerging technology such as new medical devices, new drugs, diagnostics and software. 

One major success that came from her tenure: ZS Pharma. Boudreaux said she convinced the founders, who previously lived in Fort Worth, to come back and build the company, which focused on developing a drug for treating kidney disease. ZS Pharma eventually went public and sold the company to AstraZeneca for nearly $3 billion. That deal caused ripples in the local economy, she said.

Boudreaux points to Southlake-based company Renibus, which was founded by ZS Pharma’s co-founder, Jeff Keyser, as an example of such a ripple. ZS Pharma’s other co-founder, Al Guillem, was on the board of Barricade Therapeutics in Dallas.

“All of those people made a whole lot of money,” Boudreaux said. “And what did they do with that money? They plowed it back into other new companies in the area.”  

Brent Sorrells, who was the director of programs at Tech Fort Worth, eventually got involved with ZS Pharma and became director of clinical operations for the company. He said the success of ZS Pharma helped build street credibility for Tech Fort Worth. There was an element of luck with bringing the founders back to Fort Worth, he said, because Boudreaux knew them and had established trust. 

A lesson learned from the ZS Pharma exit, he said, is that people need to know about how Tech Fort Worth can help them build a business.

“I think a lot of it has to do with just making sure that the broader community is aware of the resources available,” he said.

Looking into the future, Sorrells said, Tech Fort Worth’s focus will be increasing funding to maximize the organization’s impact. 

Boudreaux said startups now are dreaming bigger and starting companies with larger potential compared to when she started with Tech Fort Worth. She thinks several startups are on the verge of seeing similar success to ZS Pharma, although she declined to name specific founders. She believes Tech Fort Worth still has room to grow as an organization. 

“I think there is potential for Tech Fort Worth to be much larger and to fuel the growth of many more of these companies,” she said. 

Leaders like Blackburn think large companies relocating to Fort Worth will always garner a lot of attention. The bigger challenge is ensuring a support system for people who want to grow a company in Fort Worth.

“Our challenge as an organization is, like, how do you bang the drum of the local that’s building in your backyard?” Blackburn said. “To make sure — while they’re building and may not be there at that big number yet — we’ve got a pipeline and a history of companies reaching that degree.”

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at seth.bodine@fortworthreport.org and follow on Twitter @sbodine120At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Seth Bodine is the business reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He previously covered agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma for the public radio station, KOSU, as a Report for America corps member....