A View On Accessing Federal Funding

Guest Blog Written by MTI’s SBIR Expert, Karen West

What do well-known companies such as Qualcomm, iRobot and Sonicare all have in common? They got their start with SBIR funding. With oversight by the Small Business Administration, the Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program is considered America’s “Seed Fund,” providing early-stage, high risk funding to entrepreneurs and small businesses wanting to conduct research and development (R&D) leading to the commercialization of new products, processes, and services.

As I do most years, earlier this month I had the privilege of attending the National SBIR/STTR Conference held in conjunction with the TechConnect World Innovation Expo & Conference. The event attracts thousands of attendees, with the SBIR/STTR program being an important component. The conference is a whirlwind of keynote speakers, in-depth sessions, networking opportunities and meetings, all centered around how small businesses and entrepreneurs can access funding to bring their innovations to market. The gathering of small and large businesses, ecosystem organizations, consultants and others focuses on innovation, research, and commercialization in an effort to strengthen our economy and global competitiveness. There were several takeaway messages from the conference, but the two that resonated most with me were: it takes a team to get an award – the federal agencies aren’t just vetting a technology but are “betting” on the team assembled to bring that product to market – and that commercialization (driven by talking with your customer) is very important, even when just starting out.

Why is this program so important? Few other sources of funding are so willing to put big bets on risky technologies and startup companies without expecting anything in return except for excellent R&D and a commitment to commercialize the technology. While the details of the program are myriad and sometimes confusing (I’ll get to that later), what is not are the facts: the program provides almost $4Billion (with a “B”!) in non-dilutive funding to small businesses by making over 7,000 awards annually, and overwhelmingly those awards go to start-ups of 2-10 employees.

Having been the lead consultant to MTI’s SBIR/STTR Technical Assistance Program (TAP) for over twenty years, I’ve seen the program grow and change, becoming more complex and competitive. Developing a strong proposal can seem overwhelming if you’ve never done it before, and that’s where the TAP team steps in to guide and advise you through the process.

Our TAP services begin with finding an agency that is interested in funding your innovation, identifying the importance of the problem and market opportunity, and deciding how you’ll bring the product to market. We’ll help you develop the project objectives, technical work plan and create all the supporting documents and stay with you through hitting the “submit” button. Perhaps best of all, companies receive these services at no charge as MTI pays us to help you! With more than 100 years’ collective experience, the TAP team, consisting of Suzanne Hamlin of Transformative Knowledge, Stan Gavitt of Stanton Gavitt, CPA, Jan Knight of Bancroft Information Services, and Jo Anne Goodnight (biotech), is well-suited to helping your company explain how your innovation can become a thriving business, meeting customer needs while also providing broader societal benefits.

It’s always fascinating and gratifying to watch a proposal come together from the germ of an idea to a rough draft to a polished document, and I know there’s a lot of sweat equity that goes into developing a proposal. Once submitted, I think having to wait for a decision can often be the toughest part. Of course, it’s always fun to celebrate the wins, and Maine has had some notable successes to just name a few: Tex-Tech Industries, FHC Corporation, RockStep Solutions, Eldertide LLC, Orono Spectral Solutions, Ocean Farm Technologies, and Shellfish Solutions. Did you see bluShift Aerospace test their biofuel rocket this past January? NASA’s SBIR program provided some early-stage R&D funding. So exciting! Yet I believe there is ample opportunity for more companies to participate and succeed. We need more entrepreneurs and start-ups to write those proposals and begin the entrepreneurship path to success.

Since the SBIR/STTR program inception in 1983, over 135 Maine companies have received more than 500 awards equaling $126M, and MTI’s TAP team is proud to have supported a significant majority of those companies since its founding in 1999. The companies receiving awards come from all sixteen counties and cover all of MTI’s technology sectors. They have succeeded in receiving multiple Phase I/II awards, have gone on to raise commercial funding to grow and scale their business or been bought out. Truly amazing success stories. What I find rewarding as well, is the generosity these companies demonstrate in being willing to mentor and help those who come after them, providing insight into how they managed the process, the lessons they’ve learned, and willingness to guide other new companies. It is always more impactful to hear it from those who have been there and done that.

On behalf of MTI’s TAP team, I encourage all entrepreneurs and small business to consider the SBIR/STTR program as a means of bringing an innovative new idea to the marketplace. For more information, please visit www.sbir.gov, and MTI’s SBIR/STTR web pages.