December's featured article

Members of the SBIR Road Tour team pay a visit to the Institute for Micromanufacturing at Louisiana Tech University.

On the Road to Invention with SBIR

Tony Knight : Office of Innovation Development

Ever have the feeling you’re talking to someone you know but just can’t remember their name or where you met? Maybe it will be a little easier to remember if they also invented something cool.

While recently touring with the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Road Tour, a couple of gentlemen approached me and said, “Hey, we know you. We met at the VentureWell (Formerly NCIIA) Open Minds Competition a few years ago.”  

We re-introduced ourselves, and when they refreshed my memory about their invention, it all came back to me. When someone has a really cool invention, it’s hard to forget. Their invention, MaxQ, is an ultra-thin insulating material that also provides structural support.

Saravan Kumar, Balaji Jayakumar, Shoaib Shaikh, and Jessica Shelton competed in the 2012 Open Minds Competition. The invention aids the healthcare industry by reducing weight and the cost for shipping blood, pharmaceuticals, and other materials that must remain cold when shipped. When I met for the second time, the team’s first U.S. patent, no. 9,027,782, had just issued, and they were in the process of securing funding for their growing venture. That’s where the SBIR Road Tour or Small Business Innovation Research Road Tour comes in to this story.

The SBIR program is administered by the Small Business Administration with 11 participating federal agencies offering grants to inventors and entrepreneurs to help commercialize inventions that offer solutions to specific technical problems. While the solutions belong to the inventors, the technical problems are provided by one of the participating federal agencies. What makes this all very interesting to inventors is that many of the technical problems agencies face are also faced by businesses and consumers. This means that sometimes it is the problem that sets the stage for the invention and other times it is adapting an already-existing invention to solve the problem and secure funding.

The MaxQ team initially got their problem from NASA and developed a solution along the way. While NASA ultimately did not fund them, other federal agencies expressed interest in their invention. So it doesn’t matter which agency provides the problem; any of them can provide funding.

The guys at MaxQ have this advice for any inventor trying to commercialize their invention: be flexible to get opportunities. You have to get out of the building and talk with people to develop your invention into something that people will purchase. Access to capital is always a challenge for any budding entrepreneur, but the SBIR program is a great opportunity.

In the next issue of Inventors Eye, we will have more on the SBIR Road Tour and feature a teacher that attended the National Summer Teacher Institute on Innovation, STEM and Intellectual Property this summer, so stay tuned!

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