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Highlights from the Arkansas SBIR Road Tour

April 20th, 2016 by Rebecca Norman

Jarrod Narowood of the ASBTDC welcomes SBIR Road Tour bus

Jarrod Norwood of ASBTDC welcomes the program managers and tour organizers

Innovative Arkansas entrepreneurs had the unique opportunity April 19 to meet directly with federal agency representatives from the Small Business Innovation Program. About 65 entrepreneurs attended the SBIR Road Tour event, with several driving in from Jonesboro, Alma, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, and Russellville.

The Tour

Little Rock was part of the national SBIR Road Tour’s South East leg. SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet kicked off the event at a Monday evening reception at the Clinton Library.

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet kicks off the road tour

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet (left) came to Little Rock to kick off the tour

The tour bus arrived at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Reynolds Business Center early Tuesday morning.

On board were national tour organizers, Erick Littleford and Judy Davis of Dawnbreaker and John Williams, the Small Business Administration’s director of Innovation and Technology.

Representatives from the following federal agencies also participated:

  • Department of Energy
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • National Institutes of Health
  • Department of Defense (Navy, Missile Defense Agency, and Air Force)
  • Department of Agriculture
  • National Science Foundation
  • Patent and Trademark Office
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Homeland Security
Lisa Sobolewski talks about the Dept. of Homeland Security's SBIR program

Lisa Sobolewski talks about Homeland Security’s SBIR program

One-on-One Sessions

Each agency shared the unique nuances of its SBIR program in the general session. Then throughout the morning, entrepreneurs met privately with agency program managers to talk about their project ideas and strategies for writing competitive proposals.  The 15-minute rotations allowed participants to speak with multiple agencies.

“Being this is the first time I have attended a SBIR event, I found the road tour to be a wealth of knowledge, and the contacts met will allow me to explore the right path to help our company grow,” said Brad Fausett, CEO of ArkUAV.

This sentiment was shared among other attendees as well. Shelby Kriz, COO for ShopAbled, said, “I want to thank you for the opportunity to attend the SBIR Road Tour today. Not only was it extremely informative, it answered specific questions that many startups have in this journey. Doors that were opened today, I’m sure, will help to lead our business down a very successful path.”

“The SBIR Road Tour was a top-notch experience for any entrepreneur or innovator,” said Pamela Whitaker, CEO of East Coast Awakening. “I met several folks today whom I believe can truly help move my business forward. Thank you!”

Agency Feedback

The program managers and other agency representatives indicated they thought highly of their sessions with Arkansas entrepreneurs.

“The UALR Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center hosted a wonderful event,” said Scott Dockum of USDA. “The small companies had a wide range of innovative technologies, and it was great to describe the SBIR program to them.

Dr. Matt Portnoy of the National Institutes of Health added, “NIH is happy to continue to support the ASBTDC and Arkansas small businesses through our participation in the SBIR Road Tour.  ASBTDC and UALR rolled out the red carpet and put on a great workshop.”

Arkansas SBIR awardee panel session (moderated by ASBTDC's Whitney Horton)

Arkansas SBIR winners panel

 Arkansas SBIR Winners Panel

The “From the Trenches” panel was comprised of leaders from three Arkansas-based companies that have won multiple SBIR awards.

Dr. Beth Hood, CEO of Infinite Enzymes, Dr. Matt Francis, CEO of Ozark Integrated Circuits, and Alan Toland, principal investigator for Synanomet, had great insights to share about their experiences with the SBIR program.

They all noted that early preparation was critical to writing winning SBIR proposals. Toland pointed out the challenge associated with continuing to apply for new SBIR funding opportunities while at the same time performing time-consuming research needed to bring the company’s product to commercial-readiness level.

Hood also serves as a faculty member at Arkansas State University. She said her success rate with SBIR proposal applications was much higher than those for basic university research grants. Her early successes in the USDA SBIR program encouraged her to continue to pursue SBIR funding to develop her enzyme-based process for producing biofuel.

Francis shared his belief that the SBIR program was the best source of funding for his company during research and development phases since it is non-dilutive, does not have to be repaid, and allows Ozark IC to retain full control over products being developed. Francis added that his team’s control over funded projects did come with the responsibility to provide the company’s funding agency, NASA, with comprehensive reports detailing how the funding was used.

Toland shared that his team was able to gain traction on the path to commercial market once they engaged in a license agreement with an established industry partner. Hood also stressed that securing strong industry partners who could assist with manufacturing scale-up is critical for Infinite Enzymes, as a very small company without ready access to the equipment necessary to produce enzymes in the large quantity needed to address market demand.

All three talked about market research assistance from ASBTDC. They each received customized market research reports that addressed their questions and helped them to effectively discuss the rationale behind their commercialization plans. Engaging the ASBTDC for market research assistance allowed these companies to focus more of their time on the research and development work plan portions of their proposal applications.

Francis and Toland also have ASBTDC review their draft proposals. “Rebecca [Norman] has an eagle eye and catches all of the problem areas of our draft proposals,” said Francis.

“I’m always surprised when I find that other businesses aren’t taking advantage of free resources right here in the state that can help them,” said Francis. He mentioned the ASBTDC as one of these resources.

State Agency Panel

Dr. Steve Stanley of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) and Brad Henry of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority (ADFA) shared details about their funding programs for Arkansas technology companies. Stanley noted that entrepreneurs in the initial stages of preparing an SBIR proposal could be candidates for Technology Transfer Assistance Grant funds. These are $5,000 cost-match awards that require the applicant to invest $1,250 in order to receive $3,750 from AEDC.

Henry and Stanley both agreed that to be considered for larger state program awards, applicants should have already proven feasibility of their research project idea- something that is accomplished after completing a SBIR Phase I research project. Stanley did encourage innovative small businesses to communicate with him early so that AEDC could become familiar with their teams and project ideas.

Stanley noted that Arkansas Power Electronics, now part of Wolfspeed™, is a successful Arkansas company that received significant funding and support from AEDC to develop high-performance electronic solutions. Henry shared that ADFA has provided support for SFC Fluidics, a company that uses microfluidic pumps to provide point-of-care services for patients with conditions such as diabetes.

Tech Transfer Panel

Glediana Rexha of UALR TechLaunch and Dr. Nancy Gray of UAMS BioVentures shared how they work with researchers at their respective universities to support their desire to develop new products and services for commercial market.

Gray noted that with life science companies, the path to commercialization can be long, since Food and Drug Administration approval is often required. By working closely with BioVentures, medical researchers at UAMS can obtain needed support to maintain strong momentum as they move through this path.

Rexha indicated that UALR TechLaunch seeks to empower and support university entrepreneurs by protecting their intellectual property, providing them with the guidance and documentation required to work effectively with industry partners and support spin-off creation. Gray noted that UAMS routinely collaborates with entrepreneurs in the community to support clinical trial projects.