Science, technology as economic drivers

11.15.12 Thumbnail ScienceThe national Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer conference held this week in Portland underscores the role of science and technology innovation as a national economic development strategy.

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11.15.12 Blog ScienceA number of the speakers at the annual Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer conference were recently featured on the pages of Oregon Business. Others gave talks on themes the magazine has covered in the past few months. The result was a conference that felt a little like déjà vu for this managing editor while also underscoring the growing role of innovation as a national economic development strategy.

SBIR is a federal program that supports science and technology innovation by awarding research dollars to eligible small businesses. Attendees at the three-day conference, which continues today, included entrepreneurs eager to network with program managers from different federal agencies, as well as private contractors, university researchers and staff, and service providers.

Intel technology futurist Sandhiprakash Bhide kicked off Day 2 with a plenary talk titled “Everything is Smart.” Bhide described a future in which every single object and machine — cars, bikes, buildings, food, medicine — will be embedded with some kind of sensor that will be able to communicate not only with the users but with other objects/machines as well.

Smart technology will be necessary to solve critical problems in health care, transportation, security, energy management, and agriculture, said Bhide. In turn, that need will fuel demand for new businesses built around global sensing technology, data collection and analysis.

It all sounded a bit like Feeney Wireless, a Eugene based “machine-to-machine” company I wrote about in our current issue. Feeney develops wireless communications technologies that allow machines — from taxis, vending machines — to communicate with one another.

“As big as Intel is, Intel can’t do everything,” Bhide said. “We need ecosystem support and that support comes from small businesses.” Well, with over 70 employees and $16 million in revenue, Feeney isn’t exactly small.

The SBIR bioscience breakout session featured several medical device biotech companies. I wrote about one of the panelists, Gamma Therapeutics CEO David Eastman, as well as the panel moderator, Dennis McNannay, executive director of the Oregon Bioscience Association, in my blog a few weeks ago about the potential to realize biotech’s promise in Oregon.

One of the themes was about making the business case in the SBIR application. “It’s great to have technology and science,” said Eastman. “But you really have to persuade the committee where the product is going, where are you going to get money, and how you are going to manufacture it. You need to write a really excellent commercialization plan to complement the science.”

The session also included an intriguing discussion ostensibly about parsing the term “medical device” but actually about the rise of personalized medicine — and how innovation intersects with and shapes health care policy.

To be eligible for insurance reimbursement, medical devices must be approved by the FDA, said William New, chairman of The Novent Group, a Palo-Alto based consulting firm. And yet, the highest growth areas in the world today are medical products that are not officially medical devices, said New, citing the “huge amount” of telemedicine used on cell phones.

In OB’s July issue, I wrote a cover story about Medford resident Mike Green, one of the founders of America21, a national organization that aims to bring black entrepreneurs into the “innovation economy.” Green’s cofounders, Chad Womack and Jonathan Holifield, were two of the panelists on the SBIR diversity panel, which focused on current policies and outreach targeting underserved communities.

The session began with a video produced by IDEAL Portland, a newly formed organization with a mission of “fostering an inclusive innovation economy” in Portland. IDEAL was founded by Dwayne Johnson, who had been working with Green on similar project, the Portland Urban Roundtable.

IDEAL is collaborating with America21, but even after talking briefly to Green, who was in the audience, I was a bit confused whether IDEAL was its own entity or a rebrand of the urban roundtable. The day before Green had emailed me a link to yet another video with inclusive innovation themes, the Scale Up Campaign, which was to debut last night at the governor’s innovation rally held at Wieden+Kennedy. There is a lot of strategizing going on, Green said.

The last session I attended was on commercially viable education technology games — an area now on the radar of the federal government, said Edward Mertz, SBIR program manager. Between 2008-2011, the U.S. Department of Education SBIR program funded eight game-based projects, he said.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy also started a federal working group on games this year. Subjects of interest include games supporting English as a second language, statistics and probability. The latter category would cover The Digits, a math web/app game I wrote about in a story about storytelling and digital technology in Portland’s film community.

I’m pointing out the overlap between people/ideas featured in OB and at the SBIR conference not because I think the magazine is on top of important business stories (we are) but because it’s clear that innovation isn’t just a Portland business story or an Oregon business story but a national story about entrepreneurs, big companies, universities and government working to commercialize science and technology innovation to enhance U.S. social and economic competitiveness.

I’ll drive the point home with two final quotes:

“There is a lot of sensing work taking place in China. I’m scared at the rate at which things are progressing in China — the amount of innovation happening there in making things smart. We just cannot afford to miss smart innovation.” — Sandhiprakash Bhide

“Innovation is a survival issue. Commercialized innovation is the best source for prosperity and wealth creation, and science-based innovation is the most durable and valuable.” — ONAMI executive director Skip Rung, who delivered the lunchtime keynote.

Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.

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