SANDY — Launching a small business is typically a challenging and expensive venture, especially for those in the technology or medical science space. But there is money available to help startups make it through the development stages if they know where to look and how to apply.
For the first time in over 15 years, the U.S. Small Business Administration stopped in Utah on its annual Small Business Innovation Research Road Tour. During an event Wednesday at the Salt Lake Community College Miller Campus in Sandy, representatives of 11 federal agencies met with local entrepreneurs about technology seed funding through the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.
"We coordinate across the agencies and advocate for the small businesses," said Jennifer Shieh, chief scientist and senior technology policy adviser for the U.S. Small Business Administration. "We're trying to make sure the program makes the most sense and is effective and efficient."
Each year, approximately $2.5 billion in seed capital is made available through a competitive process, she said. The tour is an outreach initiative to help startups nationwide access the funds, with a focus on states that have underutilized this funding opportunity and women-owned and minority-owned firms, she added.
The Mountain West segment of the tour includes two states that underutilize Small Business Innovation Research funding — Idaho and Nevada — with Utah and Arizona rounding out the four-state leg this week, she said.
Shieh said research for many useful innovations have been funded in part through this seed funding program. Among them are the Sonicare vibrating toothbrush, technology for the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, as well as components in the iPhone.
Locally, the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative has provided key resources to numerous entrepreneurs since 2009 that has resulted in more than 25 percent of companies that work with the USTAR assistance center win grants, compared to about 15 percent of all applicants at most agencies.
"This (event) is an opportunity for (startups) to help their applications more competitive," said USTAR executive director Ivy Estabrooke.
Attendees got to pitch their ideas to decisionmakers during one-on-one meetings. Additionally, they heard from national and local experts on topics such as avoiding common mistakes when applying for funding, doing business with the Department of Defense, helpful resources for small businesses in Utah, along with a few inspiring stories from successful local entrepreneurs.
The event included program managers from each of the top five funding agencies, including the Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, NASA and National Science Foundation — as well as other federal agencies.
The programs offer opportunities for advanced technology firms to progress from the idea stage to commercialization, supporting the country's innovation-driven economy, Estabrooke said.
Among the Utah recipients in attendance were Rudy Wilcox, co-founder of RefloDX — a tech startup developing technology for the detection of pediatric reflux; and Cristian Atria, founder and CEO of nView Medical — a four-dimensional imaging company.
A weapons systems engineer by trade, Wilcox received a $225,000 award last year as working capital to get his company's innovation past the initial creation stage to the point where it is proven viable and ready to be taken to the next critical stage of development.
"This money was used to really refine the (technology) and make sure your solution is feasible," he explained. He intends to apply for a second stage award of up to $750,000 to move the technology toward commercialization.
"Without the grant, I wouldn't be able to pursue this in the way it needs to be," Wilcox said. "This funding is crucial to giving (entrepreneurs) the ability to run at this full steam instead of in your after hours (of your day job)."
Also an engineer, Atria said his company's technology would allow surgeons to perform procedures with greater accuracy than with conventional imaging. Thus far, his company has received $1.8 million in seed funding through various programs, with most from Small Business Innovation Research awards.
"We started from scratch. We basically had an idea and they funded the idea," he explained. "It was very difficult to find funding based on an idea."
He said his company could not have progressed so far without the seed funding program.
Since the programs' inception, over 150,000 grants totaling approximately $40 billion has been awarded to assist entrepreneurs and reduce the risk in technology investments, a news release stated.
“American innovation is not restricted by geographic or cultural boundaries, and we are dedicated to supporting America’s entrepreneurs wherever they are," said John Williams, SBA director of innovation and technology. "This tour reflects our commitment to ensuring that these innovators are aware of the resources that can help them turn a big idea into another great American success story.”