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NH innovation: Seeking to marry small business, technology

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 19. 2013 8:40PM
Dean Kamen, president and CEO of DEKA Research and Development in Manchester, right, shares his concerns about leveling the playing field for patents between small and large companies after a Monday afternoon hearing on small business innovation with Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, left, and Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte. (DAVE SOLOMON/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — A "who's who" of New Hampshire's start-up ecosystem was on hand Monday as Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, hosted a hearing at Southern New Hampshire University on small business innovation.

Much of the testimony focused on the value of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, coordinated by the Small Business Administration, which sets aside a portion of all federal research budgets for contracts or grants to small businesses.

The senators also got an earful on burdensome federal regulations, immigration reform, a lack of venture capital and the need for more education in science and technology at the field hearing of the U.S. Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.

The hearing at the SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education on Commercial Street featured testimony from a 10-member panel, followed by questions from the senators. The panel included the founders of some of the state's best known life-sciences and high-tech companies, leading educators, government representatives and investors.

The audience in the packed meeting room included some of the state's leading entrepreneurs, like Peter Antoinette, president and CEO of Nanocomp Technologies Inc. in Merrimack, and Dean Kamen, president and CEO of DEKA Research and Development in Manchester.

Many on the panel applauded the fact that the SBIR was reauthorized in 2011 through 2017, allowing for some stability in the critical grant program.

Nathan Torbick, senior research scientist at Applied GeoSolutions in Durham, said the SBIR program was instrumental in his company's growth, but urged more consistency in the application process from one federal agency to another. "They all have their own hoops we have to jump through," he said.

Jake Reder, CEO of Celdara Medical in Lebanon, urged expanded funding and greater flexibility by the SBIR administration, which he said is being overwhelmed by the pace of innovation.

"The value that the government can get from SBIR in developing innovative technology is phenomenal, in my opinion," said Jason Bundas, co-founder of QmagiQ, a small Nashua firm specializing in infrared technology. "The funding provided by SBIR has kept the development wheels turning."

The need for education reform to produce more graduates in the STEM disciplines (science, techology, engineering and math) was a recurring theme.

Gray Chynoweth, chief operating officer at Dyn in Manchester, urged the senators to consider policies that would encourage educators to leave what he called the ivory tower and meet the needs of innovative businesses.

"How do we get degrees and classes that are suited to today's businesses out more quickly?" he asked.

The chancellor of the state's community college system, Ross Gittell, described collaborative efforts between the community colleges and nearby employers to achieve that goal.

Immigration reform was a concern of the panelists, many of whom take advantage of the H-1B visa program to retain foreign-born talent educated at American universities. Efforts to expand H-1B visas have been held up in the immigration debate.

"These valuable initiatives are being held captive to other immigration related issues," said Phil Ferneau, managing partner in the New Hampshire venture capital firm, Borealis Ventures.

The hearing was not aimed at any pending bill in Congress, but could lead to legislative initiatives or policy recommendations. "I understand it's business not government that creates jobs," said Shaheen. "But government policy has a role to play."

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