TechConnect continues SBIR training sessions despite COVID-19 pandemic
by John Mark Shaver, Fairmont News Editor
July 27, 2020
Last week, the two organizations held their seventh “boot camp” of 2020, which worked with small businesses from across the state, teaching them how to apply to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant programs.
Anne Barth, the executive director of TechConnect, said these training sessions — which hundreds of start-ups have participated in this year alone — have become even more crucial since COVID-19 really took off in the United States in March.
“The pandemic has made it even more clear that great ideas to respond to the crisis are spread all across the country,” Barth said. “The capital to deploy those ideas is not, so federal scientific research and development programs like SBIR and STTR are even more important now than they might be normally. …
“Talent is equally distributed, and opportunity is not. We are here to help level that playing field … to give our start-ups and inventors just as good of a chance at being successful as those anywhere else in the country.”
Barth’s sentiment was shared by Rich Giersch, chair of the Bioscience Association of West Virginia who teaches the boot camps. Giersch said technology companies in the state have a whole variety of opportunities to secure federal funding, whether it comes from the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense or somewhere else.
“Particularly, right now, there is a tremendous amount of federal dollars available for companies developing products and services in response to the pandemic,” Giersch said. “Educating companies about these opportunities helps diversify West Virginia’s economy and makes people aware of resources they may not know are out there.”
Barth is also surprised by the popularity of the training sessions since the pandemic forced officials to move them to a virtual platform.
“I’ve been very encouraged by the response to our online boot camps,” Barth said. “I’ve seen about a 30% increase since (we started) doing these virtually. That kind of makes sense because people can stay home. They can get access to the info online.”
Giersch said each training session has almost an entirely new group of local West Virginia entrepreneurs, averaging between 20 and 45 people per class. Almost all of these businesses are based in the technology sector, ranging from focuses in aerospace to clean energy to data analysis and more.
As he works more and more with these companies, Giersch said he sees a growing future for their place in the Mountain State.
“There’s a real opportunity for West Virginia and West Virginia-based businesses,” Giersch said. “The state has been incredibly supportive of the start-up system … The opportunities here for tech (companies) are strong. There’s a very well-connected ecosystem of support for people. Logistically, we’re close to major markets. … The interest in the community is strong, and I think the potential in the workforce is strong, as well.”
Giersch explained that, by and large, technology companies in the state haven’t received very many SBIR or STTR grants. However, this isn’t because of a lack of talent, ideas or ambition, but of inaction.
“Companies in West Virginia have historically not applied for these programs in very large numbers,” Giersch said. “We don’t really have a culture of going after SBIR awards … (but), West Virginia-based businesses are just as successful as businesses based anywhere else in the country at achieving federal research awards when they actually apply for them …
“Bringing the awareness to these companies and giving them some coaching on how to apply for these grants gives rocket fuel to these companies … It’s a source of non-diluted funding to develop technology. … It’s a win all the way around. These grants are transformative for companies, and they make a large difference.”
Barth agreed, and said that, while these programs are important for the businesses themselves, the businesses’ successes are also of great importance to the state’s economy and the employment of many West Virginians.
“Nearly all new job creation comes from start-ups, so helping start-ups get off the ground is important not just for broadening the tax base, but for creating more employment opportunities in the state,” Barth said. “We want to hire people here in West Virginia, and if they create a business here at home, it’s more likely to stay here at home.”
Taking the program and its evolution since the start of the pandemic into consideration, Barth said she’s excited to see where the state’s technology sector goes next, and she’s confident it will be of a growing importance to West Virginia’s economy.
“I am optimistic about West Virginian’s tech sector because I see idea flow increasing,” Barth said. “I see a tightening of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the state. We are connected. We refer between each other. We help and assist each other.”
The eighth and final boot camp will be held Aug. 5, and those interested in signing up for the training session can apply at www.techconnectwv.org/events/.