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Five companies score big money in new Wyoming grant programs

Dec 19, 2018

Five companies based in Jackson or with ties to Teton County will head into the new year with generous cash infusions from the Wyoming Business Council.

Square One Systems Design Inc., founded in 2002, was awarded matching funds to help it compete for a Defense Department contract, and four startups won grants of up to $50,000 each to expand or just get off the ground.

“I’m kind of ecstatic,” said Loren Wilcox, founder of Enviro Cast, which will receive $50,000 toward creating its line of environmentally friendly fishing products.

The five locally connected companies, which include Noso Patches, Blaze Controller and Disa, are among the first in Wyoming to win two types of grants created this year to give a boost to Equality State startups.

The Wyoming funding for Square One, a specialty robotics developer in Jackson, is through the new SBIR Phase I and II Matching Program, which augments federal funds that Wyoming companies get through the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.

The two federal programs help small businesses conduct research and development in areas that federal agencies see as having potential for commercialization.

Enviro Cast, Blaze Controller, Noso Patches and Disa won grants through a second program, Kickstart: Wyoming, which awards $5,000 to $50,000 to promising startups with fewer than 50 employees.

Both grant programs are targeted toward high-growth-potential companies with a “globally unique concept, scalable product and business model, and a large market,” said the Business Council, which is Wyoming’s economic development agency.

In all, 10 startup companies in Wyoming received about $730,000, and more money is to be awarded (see box on page 11C).

Jackson Hole-connected businesses did well in the first round of competition. The Business Council received 45 applications for Kickstart: Wyoming money, for example, and Noso, Blaze Controller, Enviro Cast and Disa were among the six winners.

That speaks to the efficacy of Silicon Couloir efforts to promote entrepreneurship in the Tetons through education, mentoring, networking and angel funding programs, said Liza Millet, a co-founder and board member at the Jackson-based organization.

“It isn’t surprising that we won a significant percentage of the grants, given the strength of our ecosystem,” Millet said.

Square One is the oldest of the local grant-winning companies. The Jackson business was one of five applicants for the SBIR Matching Program and one of four selected. The four will receive a combined $439,927 (Square One is waiting to hear exactly how much of that it will get).

Bob Viola, co-owner and director of engineering, said that under a contract awarded in September, Square One is designing robotics tools for Defense Microelectronics Activity. The tools are for disassembling computer chips.

“The DoD has an interest in disassembling computer chips at a transistor level, perhaps to back-engineer them to see how they work or to evaluate why they’re not working,” Viola said.

Square One is working on the project under a Phase 1 contract, during which it will demonstrate the feasibility of its tools. The goal is to move into Phase II funding to build a fully functional robotics disassembly tool.

“That’s the big prize,” Viola said, because it puts the company in the position to potentially commercialize the product. “Our goal is to bring new technologies into the marketplace.”

The money awarded to Square One through the Wyoming program will improve its chances of progressing to Phase II, Viola said, by giving it the option to do things like hire a specialist or design more prototypes.

“We’re not the only company under this solicitation to get a contract” for the Defense Microelectronics Activity project, Viola said. “The money will enable the company to do a better job in how it develops and presents its conceptions in Phase 1.”

For Blaze Controller a $40,000 Kickstart: Wyoming grant means being able to begin making its product, a wireless LED lighting system that communicates directly with a car or truck to control after-market lights.

“This really gives us our start, and we’re able to go into our first production with that money,” said founder Eric Green, an Alpine resident who grew up in Jackson Hole.

He will use some of the money to build injection molds.

“The first thing is to find a mechanical engineer to design the parts,” he said. “We’d like to find someone locally.”

Based on how long that takes, he said, “getting the molds made and going to production shouldn’t take more than a month, so our hope is we could be in the marketplace by late spring.”

Green is a seasoned entrepreneur, having founded the Dust Cutter line of beverages. The Kickstart: Wyoming grant is a stamp of approval for his new venture.

“It really validates what we’re doing, and I think it gives credence to the product and the team,” he said.

Noso Patches, which makes press-on patches to repair or decorate puffy coats, backpacks and other gear and clothing, will get $50,000.

“As we head into our third year of business we plan to focus on scale,” founder Kelli Jones said. “Our business has grown 400 percent in our second year, and our production team has been in fifth gear the entire year. With this influx of cash we plan to invest in machinery to help us scale.”

Disa, a minerals separation company, was also awarded $50,000.

“We are super grateful,” said CEO Greyson Buckingham, who grew up in Kelly and graduated from Jackson Hole High School in 2009. The award “enables us to get to that next step in credibility.”

The Casper company has developed mineral processing technology that liberates valuable or contaminated target elements from a composite material. Buckingham said its process costs less and involves less environmental waste than other options.

It can be used, for example, to liberate gold from barren material, clean up oil spills or remediate tailings and abandoned uranium mines. Disa is short for “disassociation” — disassociating composite material into its discrete subfractions.

Thanks to the grant, Buckingham said, Disa can bring on more employees, buy lab equipment and do pilot projects “to get us to a place where we can bring in a significant mount of private capital to scale our operations to start taking this technology to different industries.”

Some aspects of the minerals processing industry haven’t changed in centuries, Buckingham said, so Disa has to overcome status-quo bias. Having more data to back up the technology will enable it to raise money and scale operations.

Enviro Cast’s Wilcox, who is in Pinedale, participated in Silicon Couloir’s Pitch Day in 2014 to tout another business, Alert Plus. “Saving Our Waters, One Cast at a Time,” is the motto of his new venture.

“There’s a huge need to get rid of microplastics in the environment,” he said.

Enviro Cast’s first product is a patented all-natural fishing line with a biopolymer coating and braided hemp core.

Wilcox hopes to do a soft launch in February and then travel to Orlando, Florida, in July for ICast, “to show our product at the biggest fishing expo on the planet.”

The Kickstart:Wyoming grant “will help me corner more patents and help me grow my company,” Wilcox said. “It’s amazing Wyoming stepped up to help.”

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