UMass Startups Keep Winning Federal Small Business Grants
February 26, 2019
“When we started this push a decade ago, SBIR grants were practically nonexistent in western Massachusetts,” says Jim Capistran, recently retired director of the UMass Innovation Institute. “There were maybe one or two at best, so now having half a dozen—and hopefully more soon—is a big improvement.”
The increased visibility of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in western Massachusetts is one of the clearest signs of the push to support campus scientists and engineers in moving their ideas from academia into the realm of active small businesses: Five startup companies based on ideas and technology developed on campus are currently receiving SBIR grants from federal agencies; plus, five existing companies are partnering with or subcontracting to UMass Amherst scientists and engineers to work on projects funded by SBIR grants.
The SBIR program, which started in 1982, ensures that federal agencies with big research and development budgets spend a little more than three percent of that money on entrepreneurial ventures, helping innovators conduct the important—but also expensive—R&D efforts that are necessary to bring new technologies to market.
SBIR Grants Can Be Game Changers
“We are 100 percent funded by the SBIR grants,” says Nele Van Dessel, a cofounder of Ernest Pharmaceuticals with Professor Neil Forbes, whose lab she worked in as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering until fall 2018. The startup is working on novel methods for delivering drugs to cancer cells via bacteria. Ernest received two SBIR grants in 2018—one from the National Institutes of Health and another from the National Science Foundation—totaling $450,000. “These grants have given us credibility,” Van Dessel says. “We were vetted by the federal government in the process, and that has increased interest from potential investors, too.”
"These grants have given us credibility." Nele Van Dessel, cofounder, Ernest Pharmaceuticals
On top of the operating funds and the credibility SBIR grants confer, they’re also desirable for startups as an alternative to seeking equity investors.
“SBIR grants are a great way to add value to a company before it’s ready for investors,” says Karen Utgoff, UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) Venture Development director and site director for the campus's National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Site (I-Corps @ UMass). “They are especially valuable because founders don't give up any ownership in the company to receive the funds and because the rigorous review process adds credibility,”
Capistran agrees: “An SBIR grant is free money. It’s not a loan. You don’t have to pay the government back.” Typically, he adds, startups and small companies—which must have fewer than 500 employees and be based in the United States to qualify—begin with a six-month award in the first phase, and then reapply for a larger (Phase II) award, which is usually around $700,000, but can be higher.
UMass Amherst Projects Focus on SBIR
Digital therapeutics startup Lumme led the wave of UMass Amherst-affiliated SBIR grantees by winning $1.5 million in 2015 from the National Cancer Institute.
“The money has enabled and funded the development and clinical validation of our smoking cessation platform,” says the company’s cofounder and CEO, Akshaya Shanmugam, who earned a UMass PhD in electrical and computer engineering in 2015. Lumme grew from preliminary algorithms developed with Professor Deepak Ganesan in the College of Information and Computer Sciences. Its commercial goals are to enable people to kick addictions by analyzing their smoking or drinking behavior based on their hand gestures, which are detected by a smart watch. The app then can predict when they’re likely to engage in that behavior and intervene by sending them messages. In recent clinical trials, Lumme’s app could tell when a person was smoking with better than 95 percent accuracy, and it could predict a cigarette craving in subjects six minutes before it happened.
For AuCoDe, another small business that grew out of the UMass computer science program, a $225,000 National Science Foundation SBIR grant has been integral to moving forward. “The grant is allowing us to validate the technological feasibility of our value proposition,” says Shiri Dori-Hacohen, AuCoDe’s founder and a 2017 PhD graduate of the College of Information and Computer Sciences. Her doctoral research focused on algorithms that allow identification and understanding of controversial online topics. Her company won the 2016 Innovation Challenge—a competition hosted by the Berthiaume Center to help UMass students develop great business ideas—and uses machine learning that can detect controversies and turn them into actionable insights in the stock market in real time.
Genoverde, a company founded by UMass Amherst plant geneticist Samuel Hazen and former postdoctoral research associate Michael Harrington, is using its $748,000 SBIR grant to develop a more efficient way to genetically engineer pine tree varieties with higher wood density, allowing a commercial-scale production program that will help meet increasing global demand for sustainable wood products.
Julie Bliss Mullen, a PhD candidate in environmental engineering at UMass Amherst, says the $225,000 her startup, Aclarity, received from its National Science Foundation SBIR grant last year made it a real business for herself and her partner: “The SBIR has allowed both of us to join the team full-time with salaries and has been the driving support behind our product development.”
Tapping Into Benefits of the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
Mullen developed the technology behind Aclarity, which uses electricity to purify water, during her doctoral research, but she took full advantage of programs elsewhere on campus meant to help in the process of turning ideas into businesses. She filed a patent with the university’s Technology Transfer Office and consulted in the early stages with the College of Engineering’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Eric Crawley, as well as with IALS’s Karen Utgoff.
Mullen met Aclarity’s cofounder, Barrett Mully, in 2017, when she took an entrepreneurship course at the Isenberg School of Management, where Mully was a full-time MBA student. They joined forces to compete in that year’s Innovation Challenge and won first place, and then participated in the Berthiaume Center Summer Accelerator, where they were matched with helpful mentors.
That’s the kind of cross-campus success story UMass Amherst has been working toward. “We started putting much more emphasis on startups because it became clear that almost all the growth in employment was in small and midsize companies,” Jim Capistran says. “We really want to try to help students and faculty do what it takes to start new businesses.”
He acknowledges that the UMass Amherst community could have even more SBIR grants, and says he has been trying to help connect students and faculty members with grantees who can offer advice on the process, as well as with the federal agencies offering the awards. But the benefits go both ways, Capistran says, describing the campus’s core facilities—many of which are based in IALS—that entrepreneurs can access inexpensively, bringing some of the federal money back to campus. “Aclarity, for example, can use SBIR funds at the water testing center, down behind the Mullins Center,” he says. “We have 3D printing, electron microscopy, and other core research facilities on campus—equipment that many small businesses would have a really hard time accessing otherwise.”
IALS’s Karen Utgoff points out that SBIR money also brings jobs to western Massachusetts: “These companies are hiring interns and a few other people.”
“It provided an excellent opportunity to translate our basic science to the real world.” Vince Rotello, chemistry professor
Plus, SBIRs support work on campus when UMass community members are hired as subcontractors for small businesses with the grants. Vince Rotello, a chemistry professor, is working with an existing biomedical company called Vuronyx, which approached him to develop a sensor system paid for by SBIR money. “It provided an excellent opportunity to translate our basic science to the real world,” he says.
Steve Eyles, director of the Mass Spectrometry Core at IALS, is working with a company called NovaSterilis as an SBIR subcontractor, developing methods for sterilization of biotherapeutics using supercritical fluid techniques. Mechanical engineering professor David Schmidt works with a company called Energy Research Consultants on SBIR grant work funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory. And FTL Labs Corporation, which is located in Amherst and focuses on bringing technological developments from academia into the marketplace, has subcontracted several SBIR grant projects to the UMass Amherst community.
Campus startups agree that although navigating the SBIR grant process can be complicated, people who know how to access the university’s resources can make a big difference. Ernest Pharmaceuticals’ Nele Van Dessel calls many of the people who helped her with the startup process essential. “They have helped us revise grants, set up new mechanisms for companies to access equipment, and use core facilities and the IALS vouchers, as well as helping us with conflict-of-interest management and figuring out how to merge UMass administration with the needs of business,” she says. “We have really benefited from the increased push to start companies at UMass.”
Top photo (left to right): Shiri Dori-Hacohen, Nele Van Dessel and Neil Forbes, Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully, Akshaya Shanmugam, Samuel Hazen