KENNEBUNKPORT – High-tech entrepreneurs in Maine should be taking better advantage of two federal grant programs that offer billions of dollars for “game-changing innovations,” according to several federal agencies who visited the state Thursday.
The representatives, from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, attended a conference organized by the Maine Technology Institute at The Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport.
Presenters at the conference explained two federal grant programs, known as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR), that provide early-stage funding with no strings attached to entrepreneurs seeking to develop promising new technologies. They also offered one-on-one advisory sessions to the conference’s roughly 150 attendees.
Matthew Portnoy, the SBIR and STTR program coordinator for National Institutes of Health, said the federal agencies conduct regular visits to states in which relatively few grants have been awarded since the SBIR program was created in 1982. Maine is one of them, he said.
“They don’t have a history of winning a lot of awards,” Portnoy said.
Maine Technology Institute SBIR and STTR expert Karen West said the institute has been tracking Maine’s participation in the programs since 1997. In that time, 296 grants have been awarded, totaling about $73.5 million.
By comparison, the two programs have generated more than 100,000 awards nationwide totaling more than $30 billion since their inception, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s SBIR web page.
West said the institute doesn’t track how many entrepreneurs in Maine have applied for grants. Nationally, about 17 percent of applicants received awards in 2012, said Elissa Sobolewski, SBIR program director for the Department of Homeland Security.
Each federal agency is seeking specific technologies and administers the two programs slightly differently.
For Homeland Security, a grant recipient must try to develop technology that will meet one of the agency’s objectives, such as preventing terrorist attacks, securing national borders or detecting weapons of mass destruction.
The National Institutes of Health, on the other hand, is looking for technologies with the potential to solve widespread medical problems.
National Science Foundation SBIR Program Director Rajesh Mehta said his organization is looking for any “game-changing innovations” with the potential for great commercial success or societal impact.
The foundation’s research has shown that for every $1 awarded in grants, recipients have generated $9 in economic growth for the country, Mehta said.
Despite Maine’s relatively weak participation overall, a handful of companies in the state are regarded as SBIR superstars, including Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co., which has received over $1 million in SBIR grants from the departments of Energy and Agriculture.
The company, which is developing a 4-megawatt tidal power plant in the Gulf of Maine, recently won the U.S. Small Business Administration’s SBIR Tibbetts Award, created to honor companies that represent the best of the program.
A second Maine-based company, Orono Spectral Solutions Inc., also received the Tibbetts award. Orono Spectral is developing special materials that improve the effectiveness of chemical- and biological-agent detectors.
Still, Orono Spectral Vice President and Senior Research Scientist Luke Doucette said defense funds represent “the vast majority” of the Bangor-based company’s revenue so far.
The SBIR and STTR programs only help companies at the very early stages of development, beyond which they must rely on funding from private sources or product sales, West said.
Despite those limitations, she said, the federal grants are critical to the development of more technology jobs in Maine, which historically has not been a robust center for the high-tech industry.
“People are really passionate about the technology, and they want to stay in Maine,” West said.
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at: