At a forum he organized with the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center at Johnson & Wales University, Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) addressed resources available for small businesses in Rhode Island through the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program.
The initiative was created to support scientific excellence and technological innovation through investing research funds. There are currently 11 federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, that have SBIR programs.
According to Mark S. Hayward, director of the SBA Rhode Island District Office, companies in the state have received more than 50 SBIR awards worth nearly $20 million during the last four years.
Yet, Langevin said the country could not have a full economic recovery unless small businesses have the opportunity to innovate and expand.
“This is particularly true in Rhode Island, where small companies represent 96 percent of employers and the disproportionate challenges they face during an economic downturn has slowed our recovery,” Langevin said at the forum, which took place Monday at the Culinary Arts Museum located within the Johnson & Wales University Harborside Campus in Providence.
Langevin went on to say that SBIR has a proven track record of supporting successful projects. However, in conversations with business leaders, he said, it has become clear that there is more work to be done. Featured speaker Sean Greene, associate administrator for Investment and Special Advisor for Innovation, agrees.
“This is a critically important program at a critical time, but I keep coming back to, ‘There’s more work to do,’” Greene said. “We’re relentlessly focused on better outreach. Too many high-quality, innovative companies don’t know about the program…We need to be doing everything we can to [make people more aware] of the program.”
Further, he said a primary goal is to make sure the program is more accessible to entrepreneurs.
“You shouldn’t need a PhD to figure out how to access this program,” Greene said. “It’s complex and we’re reducing that complexity.”
The event also included presentations by Hayward and Christine Smith, director of the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council. They feel SBIR and other initiatives in Rhode Island support innovation in the state.
“We must continue to encourage Rhode Island high technology firms to innovate and expand,” said Hayward. “The SBIR program is an excellent vehicle to fund projects that will drive our economic recovery and create well-paying jobs.”
Smith added, “SBIR funds are much needed infusions of capital to small firms that have high potential to develop commercially valuable products. The funds are highly competitive, however, and through our STAC Collaborative Research Grant program, we provide small state investments that can help Rhode Island firms become more competitive for the larger federal awards.”
Local SBIR award recipient Cheryl Zimmerman, CEO of FarSounder, Inc., attended the event and spoke about her successful experiences with the program.
“It is small businesses such as FarSounder that are the platforms for growth and innovation for our country and which enable the U.S. to remain the global leader in technology,” said Zimmerman. “Without SBIR and other government support we would not have been able to expedite our research and development, which enabled us to become global leaders in maritime navigation.”
Among SBIR’s eligibility requirements, businesses must be organized for profit, with a place of business in the U.S. and have no more than 500 employees, including affiliates.
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Langevin has been an advocate for the defense portion of the program. In last year's Defense Authorization bill, he worked to fund SBIR and provide a six-year extension in contrast to short-term measures passed in prior years.
Ocean State companies received $5.5 million in SBIR funding for 20 projects in 2010 alone, with 13 relating to the defense industry.
Still, Langevin noted there is significant room for growth. Connecticut companies have obtained nearly six times as many awards as Rhode Island over the life of the SBIR program.