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WV Researchers, Inventors, Entrepreneurs Missing Out On Possible Commercialization Funding

July 2, 2014

The following column by Anne Barth, executive director of TechConnect West Virginia, appeared in the July 3rd edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Anne Barth headshot

Anne Barth, executive director, TechConnect West Virginia

West Virginia researchers, inventors or entrepreneurs who have an idea for a new product or technology that they would like to more fully develop and commercialize can apply for federal funding through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The program can help make their dreams a reality. However, only a very few West Virginia firms are taking advantage of this funding opportunity and as a result, SBIR awards in the state are low.

The SBIR program is a significant source of funding — distributing more than $2 billion annually — that works to increase private-sector commercialization of innovations derived from federal research and development.

But, out of all the SBIR awards made in 2013, only four went to West Virginia companies. That’s down from 2012, when nine SBIR grants were made to state companies. Looking at the past four years, West Virginia had a total of 20 awards. As a comparison, in that same time frame, here’s how our neighboring states fared: Virginia had 968; Ohio had 590; Pennsylvania had 569; Kentucky had 78; Maryland had 684.

West Virginia firms are missing out on significant federal funding that could not only help their projects, but also advance the development of technological solutions that address a wide range of issues identified as a priority by federal government agencies. By more aggressively participating in the SBIR program, our firms can tap into a new source of financing that will yield results and serve to strengthen national research.

The SBIR program was established in 1982 with the purpose of strengthening the role of innovative small business concerns in federally-funded research and development (R&D). Through FY2009, more than 112,500 awards have been made totaling more than $26.9 billion.

Through a competitive awards-based program, the SBIR program lets small businesses explore their technological potential and provides the incentive to profit from commercialization. By including qualified small businesses in the nation’s R&D arena, high-tech innovation is stimulated and the nation gains entrepreneurial spirit as it meets its specific research and development needs.

One recent award in West Virginia went to eTouch Sciences, an innovative software system that uses the technology of haptics to improve learning outcomes in middle school science and math classes. Another recent SBIR winner is Polyhedron Learning Media, Inc., of Wheeling, which develops virtual physics labs for use on tablet devices. Both of these companies are experiencing increased sales and growth as a result of the support provided through the SBIR program.

It’s worth noting that Triadelphia’s Touchstone Research Laboratory is responsible for many SBIR awards in West Virginia, and deserves special recognition for their hard work and success in this area.

In addition to stimulating innovation and meeting federal R&D needs, the SBIR program also fosters and encourages participation by socially and economically disadvantaged persons.

The SBIR program is structured to provide funding or support in three phases. In Phase I, awards of up to $150,000 are made to primarily help establish technical merit and commercial potential.

Phase I award winners can apply for a Phase II SBIR, which can be as much as $1 million, to further explore the commercial potential of the proposed R&D. In Phase III, the small business begins to pursue commercialization objectives. While the SBIR program does not fund Phase III, additional non-federal funding may be available in some cases to pursue SBIR funded R&D or production contracts for products, processes or services intended for use by the federal government.

Increasing the number of SBIR applicants in the state will lead to new opportunities for West Virginia firms and produce benefits to both the state and the 11 federal agencies that participate in the program. Participating agencies include the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, and Health and Human Services, and more. If you are a business or entrepreneur who would like to learn more, please visit http://www.sbir.gov/ or email me at anne@techconnecwv.org.