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TechLink Drums Up Success for Innovation

As a business owner in Montana, it's one thing to dream about commercializing a new technology and quite another to find the resources to actually do it.

Developing new products takes money, and who's got time to shop for the funds that will help?

Montana companies are increasingly turning to a federal program aimed at easing the entrepreneur over some of the major hurdles in technology development.

Called the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program, it's helped usher in new technologies in Montana ranging from software for analyzing satellite data to power systems for space-based defense systems.

Innovation in Montana?

"When you say you're from Montana, they just don't think this kind of high-technology innovation exists out here," said Stuart Blundell of Visual Learning Systems in Missoula.

VLS was awarded two SBIR grants from NASA's Stennis Space Center. The company developed software to analyze data recorded by satellites silently sweeping the earth. NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and the federal Department of Transportation used the software to look for alternate cargo transportation routes in southern California. That work also was supported by an SBIR grant.

"As the amount of earth imagery increases, we need new information technology tools to extract the information faster," Blundell explained.

Because the VLS software can pull out features such as roads and buildings, the company now has an agreement with the Department of Defense to analyze satellite information for military features such as tanks and airplanes.

After getting the SBIR grants, VLS went from two to nine employees.

Not just horseshoes

Stuart Blundell's Missoula company went from two to nine employees after landing SBIR grants.
VLS is precisely the high-tech success story that can be emulated elsewhere in Montana, say technology managers at Bozeman-based TechLink, a facility that helps companies compete for SBIRs.

TechLink was established nearly six years ago to help companies in Montana and neighboring states commercialize technologies created by scientists at NASA and the Department of Defense. It's part of Montana State University in Bozeman.

Two years ago, the Department of Defense asked TechLink to help companies compete for SBIR funds, which are awarded in two phases. The agency oversees the largest pot of SBIR funds-about $0.5 billion a year-and noticed that not many of those funds were going to companies in this region.

Blundell credits TechLink for opening doors at NASA by establishing a technology cooperation agreement with the agency's Jet Propulsion Lab.

"Having a reference system is important," Blundell said. "You say you're from Montana and have innovative technology and they say, 'What? New horseshoe technologies'?"

TechLink helped VLS develop its SBIR proposals and arranged for a professional review.

"That's very important," said Blundell, "because in order to be successful in SBIRs, you not only have to have innovative technology, but you have to be extremely good at writing proposals."

Getting past go

Inexperience with writing proposals is one of the biggest hurdles Montana companies face, said Ray Friesenhahn, the coordinator of TechLink's SBIR assistance programs. Another is lack of access to technical facilities or equipment the company might need to develop an idea for a new product.

MSE Technologies in Butte received an SBIR from the Missile Defense Agency, said company vice president Dave Micheletti.

That's where an entry-level SBIR program-called Phase 0-can help. It awards up to $5,000 to help Montana companies develop competitive proposals. The program encourages companies to collaborate with researchers at Montana universities, who can often make the proposals more competitive, said Friesenhahn.

The Phase 0 approach has worked, said MSU professor Gary Strobel. He started the entry-level program while heading the Montana EPSCoR program, which funds the Phase 0 grants with TechLink.

Most result in a Phase I proposal being submitted for federal funding, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of those get the money. Nationally the average success rate is about 10 percent.

The University of Montana and the Montana Department of Commerce also offer SBIR assistance in Montana. Last year $11.5 million of SBIR funds were awarded to Montana companies, said Linda Brander, SBIR outreach coordinator for the Department of Commerce. That's up from about $5 million in 2000.

Going to the next step

Another hurdle for companies is getting from a Phase I to a Phase II SBIR, which involves grants that typically are 10 times larger. In Phase I, entrepreneurs must prove that their idea for a new technology has merit. Phase II involves creating a prototype and coming up with a business plan. Phase III, not funded by the government, involves commercialization.

TechLink helps companies with SBIRs in a number of ways, said director Will Swearingen.

"Most companies fail (to get to Phase II) not because they have a poor technology idea but because the federal agency wants a strong commercialization plan," said TechLink director Will Swearingen.

TechLink helps by doing market research or by drawing in the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center based at MSU-Bozeman for manufacturing and production expertise.

To drum up more successes, TechLink offers workshops, notifies companies of specific SBIR opportunities, helps them flesh out their ideas, identifies university and business partners, and contacts staff at federal agencies that fund the program.

Having TechLink behind them helped MSE Technologies in Butte land a $600,000 Phase II grant from the Missile Defense Agency, said Dave Micheletti, MSE's vice president of advanced energy and aerospace programs. The grant funds work on power generation for space-based defense satellites.

"Being in Montana is a disadvantage," Micheletti agreed. "But we are overcoming that in aerospace."

Annette Trinity-Stevens

TechLink DoD SBIR Assistance Programs:

MSU MONTS/TechLink SBIR Phase 0 Program:

Montana Dept. of Commerce Phase 0 Program:

UM SBIR Phase 0 Program
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