BY MARA LEE
UNCASVILLE — For three days this week at the Mohegan Sun casino, small technology firms, manufacturers and researchers barely underway with ideas for developing a product are gathering with the hope of gaining an advantage in the quest for $2 billion a year in grants.
About 80 percent of the 500 attendees at the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) summit on Wednesday were from Connecticut companies. Some were not seeking money at all, but were the large corporations that would like to license their inventions and the federal agencies who could be the end customers.
The summit, which ends Thursday, is a glimpse at the state of the state’s feeder system for research that can change the way manufacturing happens at places like Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney, two large sponsors of the event.
Many of the SBIR grantees are so early in their technology development that they don’t have a product to sell yet, or are selling in such small quantities that they don’t have enough revenue to support their staffing costs.
Scott DeFelice, CEO of Oxford Performance Materials in South Windsor, was one of the few small companies there that has commercial sales.
“Frankly, I think there should be a lot more commercial companies here,” DeFelice said. He attended for two reasons — one, he hoped to find university or nonprofit researchers that might be working on technology that his company could end up selling; and two, Oxford is applying for its own SBIR grant this fall.
DeFelice plans to partner with a German research institute to create lower-leg and foot prosthetics made with additive technology. Additive technology is a process of using metal powders to build up a product millimeter by millimeter. Because the product doesn’t rely on a mold or tooling to tell the machine where to cut away material, it can be easily customized, and some shapes can be made that would many more steps in traditional machining.
“If you have a really compelling market opportunity that is just beyond your financial capability, you can raise capital with dilutes the shareholders,” he said — or you can try for a grant like this one, that doesn’t require an equity stake.
There are many technology firms that receive the $150,000 or $1 million grants repeatedly over the years, but never make it to self-sustaining sales, even over a decade.
“That critique of the SBIR program is valid,” DeFelice said, adding, “There does seem to be more focus on trying to bring truly relevant research forward.”
SBIR is designed to stimulate innovation, meet federal technology needs and increase private-sector commercialization of federal R & D funding.
Phyl Speser, CEO of a technology transfer consultancy in Rhode Island, is expected to speak Thursday on how to expand a business after the SBIR money ends. He said roughly half of the larger grantees — who had success at the lower level first — get to commercial success.
When companies explain why they can’t commercialize their technology, Speser said in an interview, they say the market isn’t ready, or they ran out of money. He said both pitfalls could be avoided with more preparation.
“You need to think now about your post-SBIR life,” he said.
The last time Connecticut hosted a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) conference was in 2010, and that time, more than 900 people attended, and only 35 percent were from Connecticut. Connecticut Innovations Small Business Innovation Director Deb Santy said the lower attendance is partly due to SBIR doing less promotion of the conference to companies around the nation, and partly to federal government cutbacks on travel budgets.
Sikorsky Innovations Chief Chris Van Buiten told the small companies in attendance that his group, the advanced research team at the helicopter manufacturer, is designed to partner with small companies. Even Sikorsky’s thousands of engineers “cannot solve all the problems,” he told attendees. “You [are] the rocket fuel for those large companies, driving innovation at those large companies.”
Copyright © 2012, The Hartford Courant