In a way, it’s the perfect marriage. Launch Tennessee supports entrepreneurs with access to resources that support their early-stage innovative companies. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) awards from federal agencies support a diverse array of entrepreneurial efforts in Tennessee. And as a Sept. 29, 2015, get-together demonstrated, SBIR/STTR recipients and Launch Tennessee have a lot to talk about.
The idea was simple: We realized that many SBIR/STTR winners in Tennessee had never been formally honored, and so we wanted to pull that group together and congratulate them. It’s no small feat to win one of these awards, and it’s very valuable for the state’s innovation economy to have these winners here.
The SBIR/STTR program allows small businesses and startups to access non-dilutive capital from 11 federal agencies. The government’s goal is simple: To support private-sector technology innovation and to encourage small businesses to commercialize those technologies, which in turn grows the US economy in dollars and in jobs. The program breaks down into three parts:
- Phase I: Establish the technical merit, feasibility and commercial potential of the proposed research and development. These awards range up to $150,000 total costs for six months.
- Phase II: Funding continues to allow the R&D to proceed, based on results achieved in Phase One, as well as the technical merit and commercial potential. These awards range up to $1 million total costs for two years.
- Phase III: Here the objective is for the business to pursue commercialization. The SBIR program does not fund this phase, but some agencies may attach their own R&D or production contracts for products, processes or services intended for use by the government.
The SBIR/STTR program has been coined “America’s Seed Fund.” However, the government doesn’t take a piece of your company in exchange for the money. This makes these awards incredibly valuable to cash-strapped early-stage companies.
From Launch Tennessee’s perspective, these businesses are great partners for the programs, connections and resources we offer. It would seem that Tennessee’s SBIR/STTR talent pool agrees: 21 winners came to our roundtable discussion, followed by 35 of them for the reception highlighting them and honoring their work.
Many of the winners weren’t aware of Launch Tennessee’s offerings, while others had some familiarity with the organization. We heard valuable input on how, and when, they looked for collaborative partners. Most admitted that they were focused on their business and would benefit from a network to connect them with other funding partners and resources.
We want to be that connective tissue. We already have experience working with SBIR winners; one of The TENN alumni, Stony Creek Colors, is one. Its founder and CEO, Sarah Bellos, spoke to attendees at the event and talked about how both programs have been very beneficial to her. She told a compelling story of the cumulative effects of the support she’s received. Now we are going to be working to connect even more of the dots between what these companies are doing and the rest of the Tennessee economy.
Here’s how we’re going to do it:
A new approach to discovery: We want to host events that target these companies with goals of learning more about them and sharing how we can help in areas of funding (including SBIR/STTR opportunities), business development and human capital.
A focused tool box: We are going to be looking for technical and business expertise for these people, whether it’s putting grants together or working through technical hurdles. Then we will connect these advisors with the startups. We have huge experience in this state in scientific research, technical expertise and business. We’re going to work harder to put that to use for entrepreneurs.
Enhanced connectivity: Whether it’s formal or informal, we are going to create opportunities to connect these companies with commercialization partners, strategic partners or customers. An SBIR/STTR award should be a means to an end — growing a company, generating revenue and creating jobs.
The attention paid to us at, and enthusiasm generated by, our event showed everyone at Launch Tennessee that we can do a lot to help our current and future SBIR/STTR winners. Now we are rolling out the strategies to cement our partnership with these exciting companies, as well as help the ones who are just now beginning to look at what an SBIR/STTR award can do for them.
- Jill Van Beke is director of innovation and commercialization for Launch Tennessee