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Innovation to Commercialization: Using Government Funding to Kick Start Your Start-Up

06/04/2008 7:00 PM Kresge
Bruce Gellerman, Public Radio International ; Thomas Allnutt, Program Director, National Science Foundation; Milton Chen, vsee; Christopher Loose , PhD '07 , Founder and Chief Technology Officer, SteriCoat Corp; Bill Townsend , SM '84, PhD '88 , Founder, Barrett Technology

Description: This informative roundtable provides useful tips to aspiring entrepreneurs on obtaining government dollars. Through conversation and Q&A, moderator Bruce Gellermanelicits some key dos and don'ts from a National Science Foundation small business program officer, and from tech CEOs who have benefited from the government's programs.

Thomas Allnut says that NSF is but one of 10 agencies that distribute money to small businesses, and that his program is "in the middle of the pack, with $110 million per year to give away to responsible small businesses to get technology into the market place." All told, in 2007, the government gave away $2.5 billion to businesses of fewer than 500 employees. While some agencies, like Department of Defense, have mission"driven solicitations (e.g., better bullets or vests), NSF has a broader mandate.

While NSF's first phase grants of $100 thousand and second phase grants of $750 thousand per year may seem small potatoes to some entrepreneurs, Allnut says, "We want to take small companies withoutcapitalization, who can't afford to take a huge risk on technology and give them a little boost to try something they wouldn't try otherwise."

For Milton Chen, an assortment of small business grants at vital times during his company's evolution "let me sleep a little easier." His real"time video conferencing software company, VSee, had begun shipping its product, and cash flows were zooming up and down. "Having extra money helped; we hired some extra people." Looking back, he says, it was a good move not seeking venture capital funding at this time, since they expected a rapid ramp up to profitability, and government funding bought VSee the time to work on "subtle, hard science issues" before facing the vicissitudes of the marketplace.

Christopher Loose began a company out of the MIT 100k Competition, developing "cutting edge functional surfaces to prevent infections." He's completed NSF first phase funding, which enabled Semprus Biosciences to develop a broad package of data about safety and efficacy. He recommends talking to program directors before writing a grant application, in order to "work within the spirit of SBIR." He also thinks the very process of applying is "a good exercise," forcing you to "think through your development plan critically."

Bill Townsendhas been building his business for 20 years, and credits SBIR grants with "helping out tremendously." His robotics company "had a hard time raising money. Robotics might look interesting on the outside, especially to engineers, but it's 1/3rd the size of the scented candlestick market." His was "not a compelling story for VC." He sold the government on the "long term bet" of robotics. Small business grants prove perfect for medium growth, he says _"it's one of the few ways to get money other than credit cards."

About the Speaker(s): Bruce Gellerman has won more than 40 national awards for environmental, financial, investigative, scientific and social affairs reporting. These include the Sigma Delta Chi"Bronze Medallion, the Ohio State Award, the AAAS"Westinghouse Award, and the Unity Award. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Scientist, and the Boston Globe and he's the author of the book Massachusetts Curiosities.

Gellerman has also taught journalism in Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Kazakstan, Armenia, Albania, Sierre Leone, and Uganda. He recently was selected as a Fulbright Senior Specialist and recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship.

Host(s): Alumni Association, MIT Enterprise Forum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

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