An engine of innovation - Omaha.com
Published Monday, November 14, 2011 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:45 am
An engine of innovation

Connecting the dots on grant proposals. Helping secure professional training. Networking. Loan packaging. Getting businesses up and running from little more than an idea and rough business plan.

Those are run-of-the-mill tasks for the Nebraska Business Development Center, which helps thousands of Nebraska businesses each year with those issues and others.

The numbers show that each year, the center is expanding its influence slowly, methodically and organically.

Consider this: In 2009, the development center recorded an overall "impact" — a measure of all lending, job creation, investments and sales by the businesses it helps, among other factors — of $324 million. In 2010, that number grew to $420 million.

For 2011, that's expected to be about $450 million, said Bob Bernier, who has been the center's director since 1979, two years after it opened.

Without the help of the development center, John Carpenter would have struggled to file a Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, grant. Carpenter is president at Bast Labs, an Omaha-based early stage company that's developing physical processes for using fibrous bast plants like flax in textiles and other applications,

The grant proposals are grueling to complete, requiring incredible detail and accuracy, Carpenter said. So without the help of the Business Development Center's Lisa Tedesco, the four-person Bast Labs team probably would have had more trouble completing a Phase I grant application for the ultra-competitive program. In the meantime, Bast Labs secured a Nebraska Value Added Agriculture Grant.

On top of that, Bast Labs tapped the development center for intensive market research through Dawnbreakers, a professional services firm based in Rochester, N.Y., that is under contract to provide market research for some of the center's clients. Carpenter said his company eventually used information from Dawnbreakers' study to improve its grant proposal.

Tedesco also tipped Carpenter and Bast Labs to a number of SBIR-sponsored workshops specifically aimed at helping small businesses improve their proposals.

"Without them, we would not be in a position to be as competitive as we are now," Carpenter said. "We believe that because of their assistance, we're in a better position to secure multiple SBIRs."

The Business Development Center has similar relationships — some more heavily involved than with Bast Labs, some less — with thousands of Nebraska businesses each year. In 2010, the development center worked with 3,090 businesses in 200 Nebraska communities. Five years earlier, in 2005, 2,231 businesses in 210 Nebraska cities and towns. And so far this year, 1,598 firms in 200 locations.

This year's total will include $100 million in government contracts for Nebraska businesses.

One company that the development center has helped earn some of those government contracts is Phazzer.

The company, which is owned by Kirk French of Cooper, Neb., makes safety devices, including glasses that record police interactions, and stun guns that soon will compete with Taser for real estate on the belts of police officers, security professionals and other public safety officials.

After working with the development center's Jason Bousquet, Phazzer was able to make some connections and work some leads with potential government clients.

Until recently, Taser, the widely known stun-gun and safety equipment manufacturer, has dominated market share in that industry, said Steve Aboud, Phazzer's international sales and product development manager. Now, with the help of Bousquet, Phazzer is positioned to start competing for government bids.

"I'd say working with the NBDC was our launchpad," said Aboud. "Our goal was always to get into the government markets."

In recent years, the center, which is funded through the U.S. Small Business Administration as well as other public agencies and private contributions, has especially focused on developing technology firms like Nebraska's Bast Labs.

"We want to be an innovation intermediary," Bernier said. "We've expanded our targets to assist businesses that want to commercialize technology."

Of 63 total Business Development Centers in the United States, Nebraska's is one of just seven that is accredited to offer Small Business Technology Transfer services that help stimulate technology development among small, for-profit businesses, and also grow relationships between the small firms and researchers and increase the number of commercialized projects initially funded through the federal government.

Bernier said the center, which is housed in the College of Business Administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has helped businesses that develop software as a service, a company that developed a program that teaches job skills to people with autism and numerous military devices and applications. Bernier declined to reveal the names of those companies.

Elsewhere in the Nebraska technology ecosystem, the development center is devoting more time and resources to pairing researchers from institutions like NU Tech Ventures, UNeMed and the intellectual property offices at Creighton University with businesses that can develop the technologies into high-revenue businesses.

"For us, it's about making connections between researchers and finding new products to commercialize," he said. "We are about creating growth in Nebraska."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1414, ross.boettcher@owh.com, twitter.com/rossboettcher

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