Fast Funding

A new SBA program helps biotech businesses grow.


Lisa Jennings, Ph.D., the founder and CEO of CirQuest Labs, has a challenge that all entrepreneurs face when growing business and adding jobs. “We need cash to grow,” Jennings says. “It’s simple, really. CirQuest has cash for business, but not necessarily for growth.”

Much of Jennings’ career has been built upon her successful research in the area of thrombosis and hemostasis. She is a professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) with joint appointments in the departments of Molecular Science, Biomedical Engineering, and Surgery. She also serves as director of the Vascular Biology Center at UTHSC. Over her career, Jennings has won several research grants and contracts from public and private sources.

With an interest in developing some of her discoveries into products that could create jobs and help patients, Jennings founded CirQuest. She understood from the beginning that she would have to learn new ways to fund a business in the private sector.

“Funding for a small business is different from research funding,” Jennings says. “Normally, businesses look at self-funding, venture capital funding, and the generation of revenues. I wanted additional options.”

One option that she is now considering is the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Every federal agency that receives a certain level of funding must set aside funds to help stimulate research and development performed by small businesses. Through the program, more small companies grow and move new products to market. What is particularly attractive to entrepreneurs like Jennings is that the SBIR program does not require an ownership stake in the company.

Maria Gomes-Solecki, DVM, is the vice president and chief scientific officer at Biopeptides Corp., which is housed in the Memphis Bioworks Foundation incubator. Biopeptides specializes in vaccines and diagnostics for a variety of infectious and allergic diseases. Gomes-Solecki is perhaps the most prolific SBIR recipient currently in the region, and Biopeptides has been consecutively funded by SBIRs since 2004.

“I can’t overstate the importance of programs like SBIRs to biotechnology companies,” Gomes-Solecki says. “We have created a culture of applying for, receiving, and successfully completing SBIRs, and it has been an integral part of our business plan.”

Jennings would welcome success like that of Gomes-Solecki, but she knows achieving her first grant will be challenging. “Writing an SBIR proposal is different from writing a scientific proposal,” Jennings says. “A successful SBIR proposal requires a mix of solid science and market planning, and I didn’t have the bandwidth to learn that sort of writing through trial and error. Also, I didn’t have easy access to training.”

To help scientist-entrepreneurs such as Jennings, the SBA has created its Federal and State Technology (FAST) partnership program, assisting small businesses to submit proposals in states, like Tennessee, that perform below national averages in proposals submitted.

A coalition of Tennessee institutions, including the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, was selected to participate in 2010-11. Each of the Tennessee SBA FAST participants has created pilot projects to grow the number of competitive applications.

To begin, there is a daylong training course with a nationally known expert in creating SBIR proposals. The course, the first of which was run in October 2010, provides an overview of the SBIR program and a survey of best practices and possible challenges.

“Dr. J.P. Kotha, a senior team member of CirQuest, attended the class,” Jennings says. “It opened our eyes to how we could use the SBIR mechanism to grow our business. It was exciting and challenging.”

A second workshop will be offered in Memphis in 2011.

The second part of the Memphis Bioworks SBA FAST program is offered in partnership with the Tennessee Technology Development Corporation (TTDC). Branded as the Phase 0/00 program, TTDC offers funding to help partially defray the costs for a small business to hire a personal consultant to assist in the writing of SBIR proposals.

Participation in the Phase 0/00 program is competitive, and CirQuest’s proposal was the first accepted in Tennessee. Jennings and her staff worked closely with the proposal consultants provided by TTDC, and though they worked under tight deadlines, CirQuest successfully submitted its first SBIR proposal in December 2010.

“We thought the level of expertise and know-how was very impressive and found their suggestions and guidance to be invaluable,” Jennings says. “We will use their services for future SBIR submissions.” According to Jennings, CirQuest might submit a second proposal later in 2011.

Maria Gomes-SoleckiThe third component of the Memphis Bioworks SBA FAST program is the Kauffman FastTrac training. Created by the Kauffman Foundation, FastTrac is an internationally recognized entrepreneurship-training program. The curriculum is designed to teach scientist-entrepreneurs the basics of company formation and growth.

“Just as with science, there are many books on entrepreneurship and business, but only an experiential course like FastTrac gives you unique and practical insights from people who have ‘done the bench work’ of business and entrepreneurship,” says Jan Bouten, a Memphis Bioworks executive who is a certified FastTrac trainer and the lead facilitator for the 10-week course.

In the SBA FAST program, the goal of the Kauffman FastTrac training program will include a focus on SBIR proposals, and participants will create a business plan as well as a draft SBIR proposal. At the end of the course, participants will present their plans to expert panels that, of course, will include Gomes-Solecki.

“It’s important to Memphis’ biotechnology community to build the number of successful SBIR applications,” Gomes-Solecki says. “SBA FAST helps everyone.”

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