Hayden Blackburn's journey at TechFW reflects not only a commitment to fostering innovation but also a keen understanding of the ever-changing landscape of technology and entrepreneurship. As the current Executive Director of TechFW, beginning in 2018 and into the future, his emphasis for the organization has been on collaboration, inclusivity, and adaptability. Founders have always remained at the forefront of his priorities by providing hands-on coaching from his unparalleled depth of startup knowledge.
His journey as a leader was one marked by growth, collaboration, and a dash of heroism as he led the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic, which has helped further define the TechFW story. As Hayden continues to steer the organization through changes, his ethos remains grounded in innovation and community development to create a stronger ecosystem of support for entrepreneurship to thrive in North Texas.
TechFW: Can you reflect on your time as Executive Director at TechFW? What inspired you to take on this role, and what goals did you set for the organization when you started?
Blackburn: When TechFW came knocking a new professional challenge and expansion into new ways to support entrepreneurs presented itself and the course was set. Joining TechFW in late 2016 as Assistant Director as the planned successor to Darlene and the high bar she set, allowed me the opportunity to lead an existing organization into new territory outside of my previous journey of launching and building new ventures.
Having experience working in economic development, working directly in co-founding a social enterprise, and serving as the founding director of a mixed-industry incubator under a public-private partnership, the chance to dive into technology commercialization, and angel investing presented an opportunity to round out my experience in entrepreneur support.
My goals and focus as I took on the title of Executive Director centered around the growth of the brand, optimizing and evolving programs to align with the wide range of needs of our members (both entrepreneur and investor), growing the network of people working in support of the mission of TechFW, and growing partnerships with stakeholders across the innovation ecosystem.
TechFW: The organization has undoubtedly evolved over the years. What were some of the key initiatives or changes you implemented during your tenure to drive growth and innovation? How has the scope of the mission expanded as it has grown over the years?
Blackburn: Several initiatives marked our evolution including introducing a team-based mentoring model, MCrew. We have been focused on expanding the angel investment group, Cowtown Angels, as well. The Impact Showcase and Awards has witnessed significant growth and expansion over the last several years. Through a concentrated effort, we have extended our collaborations to form partnerships with Tarleton State University, Texas Woman’s University, LaunchBio, and the University of Texas at Arlington, to name a few. TechFW: Share with us some of the most significant milestones during your time as Executive Director from 2018 to now. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Blackburn: Leading TechFW through the pandemic and supporting 21 startups in ThinkLab within a single calendar year are notable achievements. The evolution of the Impact Showcase into a larger platform and co-producing Fort Worth’s first Startup Crawl with 6 partners across the community are also proud moments.
TechFW: Were there any companies that experienced successful exits during your tenure at TechFW?
Blackburn: Indeed, Encore Vision's acquisition was celebrated shortly after I joined. Subsequen, Exact Diagnostics, Abexxa, and GAP Peptides were also acquired. Eosera's growth, leading to its inclusion in the Inc 5000 list, reflects ongoing success for our members as they expand and scale operations through to graduation and beyond. TechFW: How does your interest in building business foundations play a role in your job?
Blackburn: With a background in launching social enterprises, the foundations are what excite me the most in validated plans that lead to business models that can scale and be sustainable as they adapt to ever-evolving environments. Challenging founders to revisit the foundations and finding their blind spots is a driving motivator when working with our members and other entrepreneurs.
TechFW: How did you decide your concentration at TechFW, and how did your background influence the organization's direction? Blackburn: As someone with a degree in General Business with a minor in Psychology I have always pursued the connections of the seemingly unconnected. Leaning into connecting and working with a wide range of industries allows our members to learn and integrate from those outside as much as to learn from those within their industry. As technology continues to permeate into all business models it has been important for us to avoid siloing and to lean into diversification. While also homing in on our strengths in health, biotech, and life sciences. Innovation and inspiration can come from anywhere and anyone.
TechFW: You've alluded that collaboration often plays a crucial role in tech and innovation organizations. Can you talk about the partnerships and collaborations you fostered during your leadership and how they benefited TechFW?
Blackburn: Expanding connections with TCU for student internships with local startups, establishing experiential learning with Tarleton State University, joining the DoD PRISM network, and participating in the EDA Biotech+ hub with LaunchBio have strengthened our collaborations.
TechFW: What advice would you give to future startup members of TechFW?
Blackburn: I would emphasize the importance of time, energy, and talent. Have clear intentions on utilizing these resources and tap into the collective wisdom along your journey. The entrepreneurial spirit is a perpetual journey of learning and exposure. Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur.
TechFW: Finally, in a constantly evolving tech industry, what trends and developments are crucial for TechFW's future leaders to keep in mind?
Blackburn: Future leaders should focus on the societal impact of technology, aligning it with economic and societal gains. Evolving into an even more founder-friendly model is essential for sustained growth and success.