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Launch Tennessee, SBA host road tour stop to connect entrepreneurs with federal funding

Launch Tennessee joined forces with the Small Business Administration to connect entrepreneurs with information about federal funding to support innovation. 

“The goal of today is to really engage the local entrepreneurs and make them aware of America’s Seed Fund and the opportunities they present,” said Erick Page-Littleford, director for the Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer Division of SBA.   

At the America’s Seed Fund 2024 Road Tour Wednesday in Knoxville, inventors and federal agency representatives met to discuss potential funding opportunities. The stop in Knoxville was the only one in the state of Tennessee on the national road tour. 

What is America’s Seed Fund?
America’s Seed Fund is composed of two programs: 

  • Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) 
  • Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) 

Every year, the participating federal agencies — such as the National Science Foundation, and NASA — provide non dilutive funding for the commercialization and development of innovative technologies in the United States. 

The SBIR/STTR programs, colloquially known as America’s Seed Fund, are the country’s biggest source of early-stage funding for research and development. 

These programs are highly competitive and encourage U.S. small businesses to engage in federal research and development with the goal of getting innovative technologies into the commercial market.

The programs allow small businesses to finance high-risk, state-of-the-art technologies, such as: 

  • developing a prototype or proof of concept 
  • buying equipment, materials 
  • hiring subject matter experts or technical staff 
  • funding partnerships with universities

America’s Seed Fund 2024 Road Tour
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs helped welcome the group Wednesday morning, highlighting how the area has a rich history of home-grown talent.

“It’s a privilege to host such a vibrant group of minds eager to shape the future of technology and business right here in Knox County,” he said. “Our region stands as a beacon of innovation.”

And Launch Tennessee’s Development Director Emily Masters thanked the University of Tennessee for its support in hosting the event. 

“We are so thankful for the partnership with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and specifically the support of the Office of Research, Innovation and Economic Development,” she said. “We could not have made this day such a success without them.”

Entrepreneurs and innovators had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with leaders of federal agencies about SBIR/STTR funding. 

And federal agency representatives also gave “reverse pitches” to the crowd to provide direct information about specifics on their SBIR/STTR programs, such as what projects they are looking for.

For example, the National Science Foundation is looking for high-risk, high-reward technologies.

Page-Littleford said he hopes that participants get an understanding of SBIR/STTR programs and all federal agencies. 

“I hope [participants] walk away with an understanding of where they are going to align with the program so they can take the next steps, submit an application and get funding.”

Founder and CEO of Algaeo — a company that helps farmers produce sustainable and efficient bio fertilizers onsite using micro algae and also focuses on using microalgae for carbon capture — met with five federal agencies on Wednesday. 

He said he’s learned a lot he didn’t know that can help his company, from information about patents to tips on networking. 

“The biggest value for me is I met with the [United States Patent and Trademark Office] and learned about their pro bono program for patent applications,” he said. “I hadn’t submitted or filed a patent yet because I haven’t had the funding to do so, but the pro bono program will allow you to apply for a patent for free.

Support from Launch Tennessee
Launch Tennessee supports entrepreneurs and innovators seeking SBIR/STTR funding in a couple of ways. First, the organization provides grant-writing support to founders applying for the federal funds. 

Launch Tennessee also provides matching funds to companies that land SBIR/STTR funding.

“It’s really important to have local partners like Launch Tennessee,” Page-Littleford said. “We are bringing all these federal agencies here and then we go to our next stop. When [entrepreneurs] are taking those next steps, it’s the local partners, like Launch Tennessee, which are really going to be able to hold their hands and really help them take advantage of this opportunity.”

Working together to boost the economy
Ultimately, the seed fund is about boosting the entire innovation economy that moves industries forward. 

“Fundamentally what we fund are innovative ideas that have a commercial opportunity,” Page-Littleford said. “That leads to job growth. It leads to economic benefits and it leads to really impactful innovations.”

The value of the road tour also comes from the power of entrepreneurial ecosystem members coming together. 

Marc Gibson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Economic Development at the University of Tennessee, said that Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, along with UT and Launch Tennessee, are all helping to create an innovative future for the state’s economy.

“It’s about how we come together and build this ecosystem across the state to really create an innovation economy that’s going to create jobs for the future,” he said. 

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