Innovation. It’s the buzz word that I hope won’t get overused or abused. For the past few years, we have heard how it’s the driver to grow a business and the economy as a whole. And, while that is true, “innovation” is not so novel. In 1982, the federal government took a progressive, bold step and mandated set-aside funding for innovation in US small businesses. Since then the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program has been a launching pad for competitive small businesses with big ideas to solve tough problems.
Annually, the feds invest about $2.5B in US small businesses to carry out R&D with a goal of commercialization. At any given time, there are about 6,500 active SBIR projects working to overcome a critical problem that has been identified by the federal government. In other words, all those R&D projects are not “technology push” ideas looking for a market. Quite the contrary, the federal government has done the market research and is positioned itself to be the ultimate customer for the technologies being developed or has identified industry needs the SBIR company can address.
Sometimes, the market that the feds envisioned at the start of the project turns out not to be the best opportunity for the company. A terrific example of this is the SBIR Hall of Famer, iRobot. A couple of decades ago, in an effort to protect soldiers, the DOD SBIR funded a tiny company to develop a robot to go out to the field to seek and destroy landmines. That company completed the project successfully but hit the big time with products that vacuum our floors and pools.
About one in ten proposals sent into the federal SBIR programs is funded. Winners are selected based on technical approach and the market applicability. SBIR companies are heavy hitters on delivering superb research results and at estimating the market potential of the project. They have excellent commercialization plans in place before launching the R&D phase – however, even with the best-intended plans, many SBIR companies fail at bringing product to market. Here is where MEP comes in.
MEP has launched a pilot program to work with SBIR companies that have successfully completed their R&D. Through the SBIR-MEP Connections pilot, 25 early stage technology companies will receive support ranging from prototyping and plant layout to scouting services designed to locate solutions to technical issues. These companies will work closely with MEP to address their unique challenges. Together we will learn more about the needs of early stage technology companies and who knows, maybe one of these pilot companies will be the next iRobot.