Speaking at a forum he organized with the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center (RISBDC) at Johnson & Wales University, Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) highlighted an opportunity for Rhode Island companies in the state to take better advantage of federal funding for innovative research and development.
Today's Rhode Island Innovation Forum focused primarily on the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, a Small Business Administration (SBA) initiative created to support scientific excellence and technological innovation through the investment of research funds in critical national priorities to build a strong economy.
"We cannot have a full economic recovery unless small businesses have the opportunity to innovate and expand," said Langevin. "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. SBIR has a proven track record of supporting successful projects and we have seen its benefits here; however, in conversations with business leaders, it has become clear that we can do more with this program. The Rhode Island Innovation Forum is one step toward this goal."
Langevin invited Sean Greene, the SBA Associate Administrator for Investment and Special Advisor for Innovation who runs SBIR nationally, to give an overview of the program and answer questions from the state's small business community.
"The Obama Administration recognizes that SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) are a win-win," said Greene. "Federal agencies are able to meet their R&D needs, while small businesses get the chance to bring innovations to the marketplace. We worked with Members of Congress, including Rep. Langevin, to reauthorize this program for another six years and ensure small businesses have access to much needed investments. Like previous SBIR and STTR recipients Qualcomm and Symantec, we look forward to helping to cultivate even more innovative small businesses."
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Langevin has been a staunch advocate for the defense portion of the program. In last year's Defense Authorization bill, he worked to fully fund SBIR with a long-term, six-year extension in contrast to short-term measures passed in prior years. Currently, there are eleven federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, with SBIR programs.
Ocean State companies received $5.5 million in SBIR funding for 20 projects in 2010 alone, with 13 relating to the defense industry; however, Langevin noted there is significant room for growth. Connecticut companies having obtained nearly six times as many awards as Rhode Island over the life of the SBIR program.
"It is critical that we keep our small business community informed on these technology and innovation-related opportunities," said Adriana Dawson, State Director of the RISBDC. "The RISBDC is pleased to engage in these efforts and provide follow up technical assistance and support. I thank Congressman Langevin for his leadership and support on this issue in Washington and look forward to our next steps."
The event, which took place at Johnson & Wales University's Culinary Arts Museum, also included presentations by Mark S. Hayward, Director of the SBA Rhode Island District Office, and Christine Smith, Director of the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council, about ways SBIR and other initiatives underway in Rhode Island can best support innovation in the state. A local SBIR award recipient, Cheryl Zimmerman, CEO of FarSounder, Inc, spoke about her successful experiences with the program.
"Over the past several years, the SBIR program has provided awards totaling nearly $20 million to Rhode Island companies," said Hayward. "We must continue to encourage Rhode Island high technology firms to innovate and expand. The SBIR program is an excellent vehicle to fund projects that will drive our economic recovery and create well-paying jobs."
"SBIR funds are much needed infusions of capital to small firms that have high potential to develop commercially valuable products," said Smith. "The funds are highly competitive, however, and through our STAC Collaborative Research Grant program we provide small state investments that can help RI firms become more competitive for the larger federal awards."
As noted by the SBA, SBIR recognizes that the success of the small business community is critical to our national prosperity, but "the risk and expense of conducting major R&D efforts are often beyond the means of many small businesses." SBIR allows them to fairly compete with larger businesses.
"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.