What do successful companies like Symantec, Qualcomm, ViaSat and Boston Engineering Corp. have in common? They’ve all used the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Technology Transfer (STTR) Programs to develop their technology-driven businesses. Symantec, for example, grew out of an SBIR research project that led to the company’s Norton Internet security products.
Waltham-based Boston Engineering, a contract engineering firm, has won eleven awards totaling approximately $5 million in SBIR and STTR grants which has enabled them to develop robotics products for the Department of Navy and Homeland Security. The company was named one of the top 10 robotics companies in Massachusetts by Mass High Tech in April 2013.
SBIR is a federal program that awards grants and contracts to high-technology small businesses to allow these entrepreneurs to carry out the research and development necessary to develop innovative technological products that can be brought to market and also help the federal government meet its research and development needs.
SBIR targets the entrepreneurial sector because that is where most innovation and innovators thrive. However, the risk and expense of conducting serious R&D efforts are often beyond the means of many small businesses. By reserving a specific percentage of federal R&D funds for small businesses like Boston Engineering, SBIR protects the small business and enables it to compete on the same level as larger businesses.
SBIR funds the critical startup and development stages and it encourages the commercialization of the technology, product, or service, which, in turn, stimulates the U.S. economy. Since its enactment in 1982, the SBIR program has helped thousands of small businesses to compete for federal R&D awards. Their contributions have enhanced the nation's defense, protected our environment, advanced health care, and improved our ability to manage information and manipulate data.
Boston Engineering’s most recent project is the biomimetically-inspired BIOSwimmer, an unmanned underwater vehicle modeled after a tuna fish which is said to have the ideal natural shape for this type of vehicle. The BIOSwimmer’s ultra-flexible body coupled with mechanical fins and tail allow it to dart around the water just like a real fish even in the harshest of environments.
The research funded by SBIR grants from Homeland Security to shore up its increasingly high-tech underwater arsenal is designed to safeguard the coastline of America. While the BIOSwimmer has a number of security applications, its high maneuverability makes it perfectly suited for accessing hard-to-reach places such as flooded areas of ships, sea chests and parts of oil tankers. Other potential uses include inspecting and protecting harbors and piers, performing area searches and military applications.
Bob Treiber and Mark Smithers founded Boston Engineering in 1995. Treiber, an electrical engineer, and Smithers, a mechanical engineer, were co-workers at an innovative contracting engineering firm where they helped develop robots to perform hazardous work in the nuclear power industry. Their mutual love of innovation and technology led them to start an “engineer’s paradise” – a company where engineers could innovate, and develop solutions to help mankind, and to prosper from all their hard work.
Before embarking on this journey, the founders sought advice and suggestions from experts about the wisdom and “how-to’s” of starting a business. The men attended a “Getting Started in Business” workshop in Boston offered by the Boston SCORE Chapter, a SBA resource partner, and then met with a SCORE volunteer counselor who was a retired engineer. The men drew on the information conveyed by SCORE along with their other research to launch Boston Engineering.
In addition to SCORE counseling, the company obtained two SBA-backed loans to help support growth.
The team has grown to more than 50 people who’ve helped hundreds of clients in the medical, defense, alternative energy and industrial markets to design and introduce new products, to develop new technologies and to solve complex engineering challenges. The BIOSwimmer, the company’s own novel swimming robotic technology, will be commercialized and will eventually save lives.
When asked what makes him most proud about his business, Treiber spoke about feedback from a marketing firm recently hired to rebrand the company. Treiber said that “the feedback (from the marketing firm) about the people and the company truly being happy and of high moral fiber really meant a lot to me.”
Treiber said “I never thought that I would work for a small business, never mind own one. But having started and built one now for 17 years, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I highly recommend it.”