Issue Date: April 4, 2011
Challenge Grants Seek Green Targets
Discoverers of a new product or technology can face challenges getting the help and financing they need to turn their breakthrough into a commercial success. To ease this process, a grant program at the Department of Commerce is looking to create regional coalitions designed to make it easier to move innovative ideas from the lab to the marketplace.
The i6 Challenge, which is starting its second year of competition, is seeking the best ways to expedite the commercialization of new technology by bringing experts in science and academia together with businesses and entrepreneurs. The program, a multiagency effort managed by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA), is considered an important component of President Barack Obama’s Startup America initiative to promote job creation through U.S. innovation.
“We are focused on innovation partnerships with different components that can contribute specifically toward the development and growth of new companies,” a senior EDA official explains to C&EN about the program. “We are providing seed money for communities to pull together their resources through partnerships and make it easier for the innovators and would-be entrepreneurs to start and build their businesses.”
This year’s competition, called the i6 Green Challenge, focuses on the connection between improving environmental quality and economic growth. The goal is for the U.S. to improve sustainability through innovation, whether by developing alternative energy sources, devising greener manufacturing processes, making green building materials, or recycling electronic waste.
EDA is looking for teams from around the country that include universities, for-profit and nonprofit businesses, state and local governments, and entrepreneurs. These teams will operate out of regional proof-of-concept centers, which are designed to help get green technologies to market by providing space for facilitating the exchange of ideas, assisting in market evaluation and business plan development, offering advisory services and links between researchers and external networks, and providing seed funding to support commercialization of promising research.
As an example of a successful proof-of-concept center, EDA cites the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, located at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Created in 2002 with private funds, the center has spun 18 projects into commercial ventures. Its funding today is provided by donations from entrepreneurs, investors, and alumni.
Funding for this year’s i6 Challenge is $12.3 million, of which $6 million will come from the Commerce Department. The department will grant six awards of up to $1 million apiece to teams in each of EDA’s six regions for creation of proof-of-concept centers. The Commerce Department hopes to announce the winners in September.
Additional funding will come from a variety of other federal agencies that are participating in the program. For example, the Department of Energy is investing up to $2 million, which will be used to support EDA-sponsored projects that fit the department’s goals in the areas of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and green building materials. “These centers will help companies test their innovations, a critical step in commercializing next-generation clean energy technologies,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said in a statement.
The National Science Foundation is making available about $3 million to support the program. The agency is encouraging its grantees with Small Business Innovation Research grants and Small Business Technology Transfer grants for sustainability projects to participate in the EDA-sponsored coalitions. “These grantees will be eligible for a 20% supplement to their grants if they are part of a coalition that wins one of the i6 Challenge awards,” according to an NSF spokesman.
The remaining funds come from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, which are providing $700,000 and $600,000, respectively.
The National Institute of Standards & Technology and the Patent & Trademark Office are also participating in the i6 program, but in nonmonetary ways. For instance, NIST already runs the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership program (MEP), which is designed to encourage technology promotion. Like the i6 program, MEP uses centers to provide technical assistance and training to help small manufacturers use innovative technologies. NIST is working with its MEP centers and their clients to become members of the i6 proof-of-concept coalitions to increase the level of assistance to entrepreneurs.
Many of the awards made last year in the first round of grants were for development and commercialization of medical and bioscience technologies. Commerce officials plan to meet soon with representatives from all of the grant recipients to discuss which practices have been successful and which have not.
Grants for the current round of the i6 program could be held up because Congress has yet to pass a fiscal 2011 budget. But EDA officials say they think the program will receive funding—specifically the $6 million Commerce Department contribution—in the final budget measure because the i6 program emphasizes small-business start-ups and job creation, two causes with wide congressional support.
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