CARBONDALE, Ill. — The Southern Illinois Research Park at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has received a $150,000 award, one of just eight given across the country by the U.S. Small Business Administration, in the competitive, inaugural Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Catalyst prize competition.
The award went to SIU’s Southern Illinois Research Park Corporation, which operates the SIU Research Park. The goal is to develop a sustainable rural partnership network and an inclusive research and development ecosystem in the North Delta region to provide innovative opportunities for all entrepreneurs, particularly those from underserved populations, even in the most rural areas.
The network will focus on:
- Increasing awareness of SBIR opportunities.
- Connecting business and industry owners with SIU researchers.
- Enhancing the success of SBIR proposals submitted by underrepresented, rural small businesses.
The project especially targets STEM technology and innovation, and the award builds on the success and impact of the $50,000 SBA Growth Accelerator Fund Award the park received in 2019.
“The Growth Accelerator investment served as a launch pad for Southern Illinois businesses to become familiar with and competitively participate in SBIR opportunities,” said Deborah Barnett, SIU Research Park interim associate director and business incubator director. “We quickly recognized that SBIR participation starts with awareness – rural small businesses can’t take advantage of these programs if they are not even aware of them.”
Barnett notes that of the 53 entrepreneurs who participated in the Growth Accelerator programming in 2020, 62% had never heard of SBIR before.
“When the SBIR Catalyst program became available, the SIU Research Park recognized the opportunity to not only continue the momentum gained from the Growth Accelerator award, but to help other rural communities begin building that same success by fostering economic, academic and research growth through collaborative efforts for networking and in support of project funding,” she said.
Reaching entrepreneurs and targeting help
The center has existing partnerships with Delta Leadership Network colleagues in Western Kentucky and West Tennessee through the North Delta Economic Alliance. Barnett said it was an obvious choice to extend that partnership with this program due to the resource networks, university connections and similar rural geography. Partners include the Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Development at Murray State University and the Regional Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Center at University of Tennessee at Martin.
“The SBIR Catalyst will strengthen this work by bringing additional opportunities to underrepresented businesses with the potential to develop a successful model to replicate throughout the eight-state Delta region, reaching rural communities that are often excluded due to their geography and resource access,” Barnett said.
The sustainable rural partnership network and inclusive research and development ecosystem will enable participants to share information and resources, collaborate to maximize the efficiency and connect entrepreneurs with entrepreneurial support organizations. Officials will use broad and targeted outreach to connect with businesses that would benefit from SBIR funding. The funds will help entrepreneurs take product or service concepts to commercialization through training, workshops and other assistance and connect them with university researchers, industry partners and government funding sources and expertise.
Building on earlier success
The Southern Illinois Research Park is the premier innovation and technology location for the southern third of the state, according to Lynn Andersen Lindberg, executive director of innovation and economic development, and helps SIU students, faculty and staff as well as community members, bring their product, service and business ideas to life. The park includes the Illinois Small Business Development Center and Procurement Technical Assistance Center, featuring expert staff of advisers, collaborative co-working space, the 55,000-square-foot, mixed-use incubator and two other facilities for incubator program graduates.
The park and its units have a proven track record of helping the region’s entrepreneurs and businesses succeed, said Lindberg.
Barnett notes that of the 53 participants who completed the training in 2019-2020, three submitted SBIR proposals. Two of the newer submissions were selected for funding and the other pending review. In addition, a business incubator start-up was a finalist for AFWERX, a United States Air Force SBIR program. Also, two teams completed the National Science Foundation’s Innovation I-Corps regional program, and one is currently participating in the National I-Corps program. All of this happened during the pandemic, Barnett notes, so she’s excited about the possibilities for the future as the prize enables them to get the word out and help even more entrepreneurs.