900 participants from more than 40 states were in Hartford last week for the national Small Business Innovation Research Conference. S.B.I.R exists to channel federal dollars into innovative technology from the private sector, and as WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports, the conference gave a window onto the state of the economic recovery.
This is the second time in 18 months that Connecticut’s Convention Center has been chosen as the venue for the national SBIR conference. Commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development Joan MacDonald says the difference from last time is marked.
"In 2008, it was the start of the recession, and things were a little gloomy and a little tight. Right now there seems to be such a buzz, talking to business, talking to the federal agencies, department of energy, department of defense – so many opportunities for start-up companies."
Large firms like Sikorsky, Proctor and Gamble and Electric Boat rubbed shoulders at this conference with tiny start-ups just looking for their first break. Director of the SBIR office in Connecticut Deb Santy says that’s a huge part of the event.
"Big companies today are open to innovation. They’re scouting for innovation, so they come here looking for those small companies that are nimble and doing those great innovation things."
SBIR grants are available to companies with fewer than 500 employees, and if the government decides you have a sufficiently commercial concept, you can receive as much as $750,000 towards bringing your idea to market. But even that figure is small change compared to what it usually takes to develop a high tech product, funding from venture capitalists and angel investors – traditionally big sources for technology start-ups – has been hard to find during the recession. Terri Wilson is a director of Beacon, a trade group for the medical devices industry in Connecticut.
"Entrepreneurs are having a rough time. The economic rebound hasn’t really started here too much. There’s a little inkling that some of the angels and VC’s might be getting interested again, but it’s going to take a long time. But the technology that’s coming out – because of the downswing has allowed a lot of people to become innovative and try to get into their own business, so there’s a lot of innovation going on."
Whether that innovation can find the backing to get products to market is still an open question.
For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.