Individual results are may vary. Do not expect your company to win seven Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants totaling over $1.5 million, as did Rick Weiss president of Viocare Technologies (www.viocare.com), a medical device company with offices at 145 Witherspoon Street. Most recently, the National Cancer Institute funded the development of Viocare’s “eLog” — a nifty handheld gadget that records food intake and physical output to help individuals with weight loss and overall health maintenance.
Founded in Princeton in l993, originally as Princeton Multimedia Technologies, the firm continues to receive federal awards for its line of dietary monitoring systems.
Weiss says that “almost all of our R&D money comes from grants.” Struggling entrepreneurs might ask: What does this guy know that he is getting that kind of funding from the federal government? The answer is revealed during a half-day seminar, “National Institutes of Health SBIR/STTR Program and Proposal Preparation,” on Thursday, September 28, at 8 a.m. at Princeton University’s Friend Center. Cost $40. Visit www.njsbdc.com/scitech.
Sponsored by the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) office, in coordination with New Jersey’s Small Business Development Center, this workshop features Kay Etzler, program analyst for SBIR/STTR grants at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In addition to Weiss, speakers include Randy Harmon, New Jersey Small Business Development Center (NJSBDC) technology and commercialization consultant; Roger Cohen, principal of Cohen International in Nyack, New York; Patrick Alia of accounting firm Amper, Politziner & Mattia; and Karen Price of the New Jersey Knowledge Initiative.
A native of Frederick, Maryland, SBIR expert Etzler never had to move far to find her career. She has always worked for the federal government. For the National Institute of Health, she travels the country explaining that, yes, the federal government has money earmarked for a company of your size. No, it doesn’t all go to corporations the size of Halliburton.
Her duties reflect the full range of NIH’s funding. When not on the road, most of her days are spent helping young companies with a new product through the SBIR or STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) applications. Etzler also specializes in NIH’s commercialization mentoring program. “Our mission at NIH is simple — to improve human health,” says Etzler, “and we support anything that enhances that mission.” Last year the NIH proved its support by giving $640 million in SBIR and STTR grants.
Before one can get in line and apply for this fountain of funding, one must register. Online registration forms and exhaustive details concerning NIH’s requirements can be found on http://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/sbir.
What’s available. The NIH has 23 institutes/centers, including the National Cancer Center, under its domain, and all offer SBIR/STTR grants. To qualify a company must be American owned, small (under 500 employees) and, of course, have a viable idea.
If the review board likes what it sees, an entrepreneur receives an initial check of up to $100,000 for a feasibility study. This gives the company six months to technically explore and prove that the proposed idea can actually become a functioning item. The second phase provides up to $750,000 over a two year period and basically expands on the first, moving into a prototype stage and investigating commercial opportunities.
Almost all NIH funding is awarded through such SBIR grants. The remaining four percent comes in the form of contract solicitations. Recently the National Cancer Institute awarded a contract for a handheld data collecting device whose design exactly met its specified needs. The NIH SBIR website lists all such contractual solicitations.
Trot to market. While financial participation ends with the second phase, NIH’s investment in its grantees continues right up to commercialization. Etzler notes that in the health field getting a product on the shelves, or into the lab, is particularly tedious and expensive. “Most people who invent a new drug really have no idea what it takes and what it costs to get it through the FDA,” she says. “We help them understand what the obstacles are and how to face them.”
This NIH assistance program begins with helping develop a niche assessment for the product and gathering competitive data. Each grantee is assigned an NIH analyst who guides the entrepreneur through the licensing process. Etzler often leads entrepreneurs with a new product to investors able to capitalize the costly test phase, which can run into the millions.
Add star power. “If I had a word of advice for any SBIR grant applicant,” says seven-time winner Weiss, “it’s to find the very top person in the nation and get him on your team.” Before applying for grants Weiss studied the field, found the individual who was putting out all the most highly regarded papers, and called him on the phone.
“Don’t be scared that they will steal your idea or belittle you as a nobody,” he says. “I have been treated well every time.” Getting this expert to join your team and add his name to the grant application impresses the reviewers.
Meet deadlines. But even the most renowned names do not compensate for getting a grant application in late. Etzler says that the most frequent blunder entrepreneurs seeking funding make is missing the periodic deadlines, which are not the same for every NIH grant.
Try try again. She also urges persistence. If an application is rejected, the submitter has two chances to revise it and resubmit. If it is still rejected, try to make the turn-down a learning experience. Be responsive to the reviewers’ comments. They will be a help when it is time to submit the next grant application.
But probably the best tip is to keep calling NIH for aid and clarification. Each registered applicant is assigned a mentor whose job it is to help that individual make the best presentation possible. This mentor is not on the review board, but knows all the necessary protocols.
Grants involve lots of paperwork and substantial competition, but even the smallest entrepreneur will find help along the way, and, as Weiss can attest, the result is well worth the effort.