HSC’s SBIR Phase 0 program guides local company to grant money

LexkeenAfter leaving his job as technical director for U.S. Cyber Command, Lex Keen found himself at the intersection of innovative technology, geopolitics and big business. His Tarrant County-based company, SecureFoundry, entered the microchip manufacturing business just before the U.S. government took drastic steps to boost domestic production of semiconductors.

Despite having possession of a much-needed asset, he and his wife, Nicole, who also is the company’s COO, experienced difficulty gaining traction with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies that award contracts.

Thanks to a helping hand from HSC Next, The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s innovation wing, SecureFoundry recently was awarded a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant, known as an SBIR grant. These federal, nondilutive grants provide seed money to small businesses to help spur innovation. SecureFoundry previously applied for grants but was unsuccessful.

“Having the HSC Next team’s support was instrumental in making sure that the submission was well written, well formatted and everything aligned with government expectations to create a successful proposal,” Lex said.

In December, HSC received a $2 million grant from Tarrant County that supported the creation of the HSC Next SBIR Phase 0 Program, which provides guidance for Tarrant County small businesses in every step of applying for “America’s Seed Fund.” The program works in phases and can potentially award a single company up to $2 million to research and develop its product.

“When we reviewed the innovative technology that SecureFoundry was developing, we knew that it was an ideal fit for SBIR funding,” said Dr. Adrian Denvir, director of SBIR programming. “After talking with Lex and discussing how SecureFoundry previously wasn’t selected for an SBIR, we knew we could make an impact and change this.”

In 2020, SecureFoundry acquired microchip manufacturing technology from a Dutch company. The manufacturing system SecureFoundry brought stateside is geared toward advanced low-volume microchip production. The tech promises to fill a niche for businesses looking to test prototypes, commercialize new technology, and develop tech for space and defense purposes.

Nicole said the significance of the SBIR grant is twofold: The federal government has now acknowledged that SecureFoundry’s technology fills a void within the semiconductor industry, and the grant establishes a contract vehicle between her company and the government.

“Specifically, what this award enables us to do is to prove we have domesticated the technology,” she said. “The award concludes with demonstrating a production run of chips, which signals we have successfully incorporated knowledge, expertise and equipment. We are really excited about the opportunity to bring this to Texas.”

In February, SecureFoundry was one of nine businesses Denvir and his staff selected to participate in HSC’s program. Cohort companies receive training over a month and continue to work with HSC Next staffers and consultants until their proposal is successfully submitted. Denvir said his team helps companies register with essential government agencies, understand funding agency philosophies, establish research objectives, and prepare a commercialization strategy and a realistic research budget.

“This award validates the training that we are offering to Tarrant County small businesses,” Denvir said. “We look forward to helping additional innovative companies win SBIR awards.”

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