With $2.5 billion burning a hole in their pocket, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Road Tour is set to make a stop in Rochester on June 18.
Created by the Small Business Administration and featuring support from the Department of Defense, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and a number of other federal administrations, SBIR is a highly competitive federal grant program aimed at providing funding to the best, brightest and most promising young companies.
The road tour is a way to show just how businesses can get that money into their projects. Hosted by Nextcorps, formerly High Tech Rochester, the Rochester date is the only New York stop this year, and is the first step on the Eastern leg of the tour, followed by Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio; Huntington, W.V.; and Durham, N.C.
“One of the great things about the Rochester area is we have a tremendous amount of resources,” said Virginia Smith, manager for the SBA’s Buffalo district Rochester branch. “And not only for startups, but for businesses that are in expansion mode. So you have NextCorps, you have Venture Creations, you also have SCORE Rochester, the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship, you have the foundation—everywhere you turn there is another entity or group of experts that can help anyone with any business idea they have.”
SiMpore Inc. is one such company spun from the resources of Rochester that has also been a beneficiary of SBIR funding. Born from research at the University of Rochester in 2007, the nanotechnology company has since garnered seven awards from the Small Business Technology Transfer and SBIR programs, in 2010, 2011, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The two awards granted last year, one for new techniques for maturation of red blood cells outside of the body, and a second aimed at safer home dialysis systems, clocked in at a total of $975,000.
“For a technical company like SiMpore, having the availability of laboratory spaces and fabrication facilities is extremely important, and being able to access those at a reasonable rate, especially for a cash-strapped startup, is extremely important,” said James Roussie, co-founder and vice president of operations at SiMpore. “Access to laboratory space at the incubators around town is the kind of thing that is a necessary resource for startups, and as those resources are supported in the area, the startup community will flourish,” Roussie said.
Rochester, with the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology-supported incubators like Venture Creations, has a fairly good setup for startups’ physical research. But money is also an important factor, arguably the most important factor, and SiMpore is certainly not alone when it comes to local SBIR grant recipients. Ontario-based optics company Optimax, in 2017, took three SBIR awards valued at over $1.3 million. In total, the company has raked in 31 awards since 2008, valued at just over $10.5 million. Member of the Luminate NY incubator LighTopTech Corp. has also been a beneficiary of SBIR funding. In 2015, the microscope company was awarded $750,000, and in 2014, $225,000.
That funding can be a make or break factor, as Roussie explained.
“The funding available through the federal SBIR and STTR programs are the kinds of resources that are willing to take on the technical development risk of an early-stage company like SiMpore,” said Roussie. “Without those kinds of resources, SiMpore would not be in the place that it is in today. The National Science Foundation has changed the tagline of their SBIR program to ‘America’s Seed Fund,’ and, truly, that’s what they’ve become. They are taking on the early stage technical problems for companies like SiMpore, and are helping to get through that early-stage, Valley of Death-type experience.”
If there’s any point Michael Riedlinger, NextCorps program manager for technology commercialization, would like to make, it’s that one. That this funding is available, and can be invaluable to a young startup looking to get on its feet.
“Rochester is an area where technology is pretty deep. If you look to places like the University of Rochester, they’re getting in the area of $350 million per year in terms of research funding,” Riedlinger said. “I know a large part of that comes from the National Institute of Health, but that alongside RIT, Cornell University an hour and a half south of Rochester, work going on in Buffalo, there’s hundreds of millions of federal research dollars being pumped into this area.
Businesses currently seeking federal SBIR funding are able to register for the road tour leading up until the day of the event. In total, the SBIR hands out approximately 4,000 awards annually to startups and young, expanding companies.
“What we want to do is to let people here know that they can get access to funding and other support services, to make that transition from the earliest stage of research work into commercial activities,” Riedlinger said. “SBIR is one of those, but there will be other resources from in the area to help people out with early stage funding. … That’s why, to me, this event is a big deal.”