Inventive Local Companies Can Apply for Federal SBIR Grants

Federal grant program funds innovation at small businesses

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Bipartisan program

SBIR has always been a politically popular program. After all, it’s a way to direct federal funds into almost every congressional district under the cover of helping innovation and improving the economy. As Congresswoman Mazie Hirono points out, that’s particularly important now that earmarking is no longer available. So, even in these days of polarized politics, SBIR remains uncontroversial. For a sense of just how popular the program is, consider this: As part of the Defense Authorization Act that passed in December, Congress not only extended the SBIR program, it nearly doubled the size of both Phase I and Phase II awards. Perhaps more remarkable, SBIR was reauthorized for six years; previously, it had to be reauthorized every year.

Even before the reauthorization, Hirono had already introduced legislation to expand SBIR funding. “I also submitted testimony to the Small Business Committee, which had a hearing on small business innovation programs,” she says. “So it’s good. I was very pleased to learn that the Defense Authorization Bill had SBIR and STTR in it.”

SBIR is also popular with state politicians. For 22 years, Hawaii’s SBIR program, which is administered by the High Technology Development Corp., has offered matching funds to Phase I recipients, largely to help companies bridge the funding divide between Phase I and Phase II. Companies can use the funds to improve their Phase II applications – to buy equipment or pay for specialized staff.

Originally, the state program was a 50 percent match of Phase I funding. But, as HTDC business development manager Russell Au points out, there typically weren’t enough matching funds for all Hawaii awardees. “This past fiscal year, though, the state gave us $520,000, which is a $260,000 increase over the previous fiscal year.” He also notes those matching funds seem to have been a good investment, because Hawaii companies have secured about $62 million in Phase II funds and upwards of $64 million in private and other federal funds.

HTDC also supports SBIR by holding workshops and an annual conference. WEBFish, which received matching funds for its Phase I, was also given HTDC help with the complex application process. “The directions for the proposals are a little overwhelming,” says WEBFish president Wilson. “HTDC put us in touch with SBIR consultants and, in fact, funded 10 hours of work with them.”

Weidenbach adds that HTDC’s annual conference makes it possible for local firms to meet with the individual agencies’ SBIR program managers. All this is possible because, even in difficult financial times, the legislature has continued to fund and support the state’s SBIR program.

Back on the Farm

All that support is crucial to a really small firm like Hawaii Fish Co. Despite the challenges associated with managing SBIR research projects – not to mention running a fish farm – Weidenbach remains confident about the commercialization prospects for his projects, particularly the alternative-energy aeration system.

“The energy costs associated with aeration can be quite significant,” he says. “Catfish farms can use 10 to 20 horsepower per acre. Shrimp farms use even more. In ballpark terms, a horsepower is about a kilowatt. So, if you run continuous aeration on a 10-acre farm, that’s at least 100 kilowatts an hour. That’s $30 an hour just for aeration; and if you’re running it 24 hours a day, it can be a pretty significant electric bill.” After an initial investment, solar or wind would be free.

That’s why Weidenbach is confident he can sell his technology when he’s done. For now, though, his aeration system remains a half-built prototype, an assemblage of angle-iron and ingenuity heaved up on the edge of the fishpond in Haleiwa. It’s a good idea, but Weidenbach knows better than anybody, it’s going to take more than a little SBIR money to make this project pay.


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