New Innovators and the Role of Art Featured at SBIR/STTR Conference

July 1st, 2015 by Rebecca Todd

This year’s National Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/ Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Conference, held June 15-17 at the National Harbor in Maryland, featured new events that added interesting and informative dimensions to the conference.

The night of June 16, the first SBIRx-Ignite event was held to spotlight talks from the next generation of innovators and technologists in areas ranging from materials made in space to wearable technology. This event was described as “a TED talk meets The Voice program,” which allowed audience members to engage the presenters with questions following their talks.

Michael Snyder described how Made in Space conducts 3-D printing in a zero-gravity environment in order to develop new technology that can be readily applied to the space environment. The team members initially met during the summer of 2010 at Singularity University and found that they all shared a passion for space. Through conversations with three-time shuttle astronaut Dan Barry, the team discovered a need for 3-D printing in space. With launch costs at about $10,000 per pound, it’s critical for spacecraft to have durable parts that are also lightweight. In 2014, Made in Space provided the International Space Station with a 3-D printer that prints plastic parts. The company plans to shift focus to printing with multiple materials so that within five years, 60 percent of the parts in use on the ISS will be printable.

Kara Carpenter of Teachley is a math curriculum designer who has worked with individuals of all ages and is currently focused on early childhood math software. Teachley has won SBIR Phase I and II grants from the Department of Education to support development of adaptive math games that use touch screen tablets to help grade schoolers practice and learn number facts and strategies. These games, called MathFacts, provide teachers with feedback to inform their practices in the classroom. Through MathFacts, students have the opportunity to set goals, advance to more challenging levels, and engage in competition.

Dr. Molly Morse shared how Mango Materials produces biodegradable plastics from waste biogas (methane) that are economically competitive with conventional oil-based plastics. A major problem in the water supply is caused by microbeads – tiny plastic balls used in face washes, moisturizers, and toothpaste that environmental activists indicate are polluting our nation’s lakes and rivers. Mango Materials is developing a microbead alternative through its naturally occurring plastic that would dissolve in marine systems within a month. Mango Materials has partnered with a large wastewater treatment facility to provide the methane gas needed to generate their biodegradable plastics. The company won the Postcode Lottery Green Plan Competition in 2012 and won a National Science Foundation Phase II grant in 2013.

Gavin McIntyre shared how Ecovative Design uses the mycelium from mushrooms to develop eco-friendly packaging materials that serve as a strong alternative to styrofoam. The company was co-founded in 2007 by McIntyre and Eben Bayer, who starting working on the invention while in school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Ecovative has won multiple awards including the ASME’s iShow and RPI’s Change the World Challenge. The company has also successfully secured multiple SBIR awards that allowed it to develop commercial-ready versions of the product, now being sold to Dell and Crate & Barrel.

Bob Bland of Manufacture New York discussed the company’s mission to rebuild America’s fashion industry, foster the next wave of business, and create a transparent and sustainable global supply chain. Bland noted that the current options for producing and distributing new fashion designs require the designer to either work alone, with a small studio, or outsource to foreign manufacturers with extremely large minimum order requirements. Manufacture NY matches new designers with appropriate manufacturers within New York City. In 2014, the city awarded $3.5 million through its Industrial Modernization Initiative for a new fashion epicenter named the Manufacturing Innovation Hub for Apparel, Textiles and Wearable Technology. This Hub will encourage innovation and partnerships within the fashion and manufacturing industries. During that same year, Manufacture NY received a $50,000 grant from the SBA’s Accelerator Growth Fund.

This year’s conference also featured a Fireside Chat and a session called “Growing and Empowering Novel STE(A)M Innovation Pipelines.” The Fireside Chat included representatives from GoogleX, GE Global Healthcare, and the US Cyber-Challenge.

Both events addressed the importance of fostering work environments that encourage set-aside time for creative discussions regarding customer needs and new product ideas. The idea of teaming with artists and other designer types to customize new innovations for customers was discussed in depth during the STE(A)M session – the “A” representing art.

GE Healthcare cultivated a strong understanding of how children perceive scanning equipment at medical hospitals. Upon finding that the machinery scares them and often requires them to receive sedatives to remain still, GE Healthcare partnered with industrial designers to develop the GE Adventure Series, designed to make imaging an engaging journey for children.