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Ellmers: Small Business Grants Can Grow Economy

What if I told you the same technology that has helped save countless soldiers’ lives could also be used to vacuum carpets, clean pools or empty gutters? Sounds a little farfetched, right?

But in fact, this robotic technology, created by the iRobot Corp., is successfully working in dangerous situations overseas, as well as in homes across the world. Founded in 1990 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticists Colin Angle, Helen Greiner and their professor, Dr. Rodney Brooks, iRobot created the PacBot, a robot that has greatly aided the Department of Defense in performing bomb disposal and the search and exploration of other unidentified objects — while keeping our fighters out of harm’s way. 

However, iRobot is most famous for its home cleaning products, especially the Roomba robot vacuum. The line also includes robots such as the Verro pool cleaner and the Looj gutter cleaner.

Angle, Greiner and Brooks’ dream was turned into a reality not by working for a multibillion-dollar company or by big investors — but by participation in the Small Business Innovation Research program.

“What we were trying to do was so risky that no rational investor would give us money. ... The SBIR program would listen because they were looking for innovative research,” Angle said.

Created in 1982, the SBIR program has helped feed federal research and development grants to the country’s best innovators — small businesses. The objectives of the SBIR program are three-fold: to increase stimulation of technological innovation in the small business sector, to utilize this community to meet the diverse research and development needs of the federal government, and to commercialize federally funded results — i.e., transforming a bomb disposal robot for the military to a vacuum robot for the public.

Not only do great products and services develop from the program, so do quality American jobs.

According to a recent National Research Council survey, small businesses that received the SBIR grant were able to hire, on average, 2.4 employees and retain 2.1 more. Survey respondents also reported gains of 57,808 full-time employees overall. Furthermore, the survey showed that companies with at least 50 employees more than doubled their staff after being awarded the SBIR grant.

IRobot is the perfect example to demonstrate the successful results of SBIR. A scientific project started by three people at MIT now employs more than 500 of the industry’s leading robotic scientists and professionals, generating more than $299 million in revenue.

Better still, the SBIR program does not cost taxpayers any additional dollars. The program simply requires that federal agencies slice out a small percentage within their overall budget for which small firms can compete.

The SBIR program is set to expire on May 31 of this year. As chairwoman of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Healthcare and Technology, I believe it is vital that we expedite reauthorization of the SBIR program so that small businesses across the country can continue to compete for the contracts that will, in turn, springboard ideas, create jobs and spur economic growth.

For this reason, I have introduced the Creating Jobs Through Small Business Innovation Act (H.R. 1425). This reauthorization bill would allow for greater participation among small businesses with significant private capital support; increase both phase one and phase two award levels, which have not been raised since 1982; and require a Congressional reauthorization after three years. The bill would also significantly improve data collection to allow for better metrics to evaluate the programs’ successes and shortcomings and standardize the application process across agencies to encourage greater ease of use for small businesses.

We will be working quickly, yet thoroughly, over the next several weeks to get this legislation on the House floor and to the president’s desk for his signature by the May 31 deadline.

While there is much debate on the fiscal direction of our country, the SBIR program is a surefire way to aid our economy and get Americans back on the job without any additional government funding. That’s something we can all agree on.

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) is chairwoman of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Healthcare and Technology.

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