In this week’s post, we talk with Todd Strother, Senior Technology Consultant with the Center for Technology Commercialization, which offers free consulting and services to help early-stage emerging technology businesses throughout Wisconsin find funding to bring their products to market.
Tell us about the Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) and how you help early stage technical companies.
The CTC is part of the University of Wisconsin Extension’s division of Business & Entrepreneurship, so all of our services are free to Wisconsin companies. We essentially are tasked with helping the Wisconsin economy by assisting technology-based companies bring their innovative ideas to commercialization. We do several things in this regard: We will assist these companies in developing business plans, putting together investor pitches, give advice on marketing and commercialization, as well as help them through the entire process of putting together and submitting grant proposals. The most common type of grant these companies seek out is the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. I spend quite a lot of my time helping these early stage companies with those proposals.
Talk about your process of walking a company through the SBIR/STTR program.
There is some variation depending on who the company is, how far along they are, and what their needs are. Typically, though, someone may come to us who has just started a company and may have only a few people on board with some founder funds. One goal of the SBIR program is to help bring the company to the stage of outside investment, so often our clients don’t have a lot of investor funds at the time they come to us.
When someone comes to us, we will first try to understand the overall problem they are try to solve and if they have a commercially interesting and innovative solution to that problem. We help them put together an executive summary of their proposed technology, and we help them determine which agency or agencies best fits their idea. We also can give them hands-on assistance in writing a proposal. We usually don’t write the proposal for our clients because, frankly, we aren’t as knowledgeable about the technology as they are, but we can suggest how to lay out the proposal, what to include in it, what pitfalls to avoid, and what concepts to really focus on. Once the proposal, budgets, biosketches, and other materials are ready, we can help with the submission process, too. We also keep in touch after the submission and can assist in responding to the federal reviewers’ comments and help with some of the so called ‘just in time’ paperwork that might lead to funding.
What other services or events does the CTC offer?
As part of our SBIR/STTR assistance, we provide small microgrant funds to help our clients hire professional grant writers or professional commercial plan writers. We also manage a more formalized ‘presubmission review,’ where we bring in an outside team of reviewers who mimic the federal grant review process. About three weeks before a major deadline, we can send the SBIR drafts through this process so a client can see what a reviewer is thinking as they are reading the proposal. This gives our client some insight and time to make changes and improve the proposal before the deadline. We also have our SBIR Advance program. This is a program that provides up to $75,000 for SBIR companies to do marketing and commercialization activities that their federal grant doesn’t allow. We find this is a very popular program and we are very happy that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has provided the funds for this.
We also sponsor webinars and training seminars throughout the year. We are really trying to reach out to underserved groups with our activities: minority populations, women-owned businesses, as well as more rural businesses outside of the Madison-Milwaukee corridor.
What are the most common misconceptions people have about applying for (or receiving) a government grant?
Probably the most common misconception I see is that it takes a lot longer to put together a winning proposal than many people think. We often have people come to us a few weeks before a deadline and mistakenly think they can quickly write a proposal in a few days and get it sent in. In reality, unless someone has a great skill set and SBIR writing experience, it takes several weeks and maybe even a couple of months to get a good proposal prepared.
Another misconception is that the team doesn’t have the scientific skill set that they need to manage an SBIR project. Ultimately, these are highly technical and competitive research projects and the team and Principal Investigator need to be recognized as leaders in the field. The nice thing about that is that there are ways to beef up your team and bring on highly skilled people–all paid for on the grant. Conversely, another misconception we see is that people think they are not qualified for SBIRs because they don’t have a PhD or they don’t have a university connection. You don’t need a PhD or be a professor, you just have to show that you have the skill set and scientific experience to run an applied research project.
What’s the single most important change you’d like to see to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship in Wisconsin?
We would like to see more people and more diverse people take the plunge into entrepreneurship in the technical world here in Wisconsin. We have a world-class university here in the state that consistently is in the Top 10 in terms of research dollars, and have lots of inventions brought through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, but we, as a state, are lacking in getting those inventions off the shelf and into commercialization. When it comes to companies preparing and submitting SBIRs, we are about the middle of the pack. With all of these resources available, I’d like to see more people and more companies from Wisconsin apply for SBIR funds and start commercializing these technologies. I hope the CTC makes the process easier so that people with a bit of motivation will come talk to us and try it.
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