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U.S. Small Business Administration Looking for Small Company Innovators

Wayne Yoshioka

Federal agency representatives are on a road tour, visiting Hawai’i to offer funding for smaller companies doing research and development.   HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports.

The Federal Small Business Innovation Research program –SBIR--was created by Congress to provide start-up funding for small businesses with less than 500 employees.  More than $2 billion is available each year to launch projects from concept, to prototype development, to commercialization.   Its high risk,high reward.   Robert L. Smith, S-B-I-R manager for the U-S Navy, says one small company developed whale-watching technology that evolved into something bigger.

“The owner of this company started his first company in his dorm room some 25 years ago.  Today, E.M.I.L.Y., Emergency Integrated Lanyard System, is a radio-controlled, remote lifeguard used throughout the world.  Recently deployed in support of Hurrican Irma in Houston, saving1.2 lives a day.”

Smith says small companies are more nimble than large corporations but they must produce something new that meets the needs of the funding agency.   Seven Federal Departments, including Agriculture, Defense, Health and Human Services, are reviewing project proposals.  Hawai’i’s High Technology Development Corporation provides 50 percent state funding for SIBR.  Robbie Melton is corporation’s executive director.

Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Robbie Melton, executive director, High Technology Development Corporation

“We have a 80-80 initiative, which is 80-thousand new tech and innovation jobs, earning more than $80-thousand a year by 2030.  We have 119 companies in Hawai’i that have received SBR funding and 65 have gone on to Phase Two.  So that’s the higher amounts of funding.  Those are the ones where they actually are paying higher wages than the average wage in Hawai’i.”  

Phase One companies receive about100-thousand dollars…while Phase Two funding for prototype development can be a million or more.  Phase III commercialization requires private funding and partnerships.   Big Island ‘Ulu Cooperative manager, Donna Shapiro, will be pitching a Phase One proposal to the Department of Agriculture.

“We’re a farmer-owned business working to revitalize bread fruit as a staple for Hawai’i.  So our project that we’d like to propose is really how to research innovative ways to market bread fruit and scale up in order to continue meeting the needs of our small farmer members and increasing Hawai’i’s food security.

Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Donna Shapiro, Big Island 'Ulu Cooperative manager

The odds of being awarded a Phase One grant or contract is in the 15 to 20 percentile range.  But, U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Innovation and Technology director, John Williams, says the only project that’s not considered is the one that is never submitted. 

“Yeah, there’s thousands of SBR success stories.  Qualcom started with SIBR technologies back in the late ‘80s.  Now it’s a hundred million dollar plus company.  Alumina is a DNA sequencing company.  Then there’s smaller defense companies that developed technologies.  Many of them have been bought up.  So technology does that.  It never takes a straight path and you never know what it’s going to do.  So under 500 people, you all have a shot.

For more information, go to SBIR.Gov.   Wayne Yoshioka, HPR News.

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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