december coverTaking Dreams to Market

While the National Science Foundation (NSF) is best known for funding research, it also helps entrepreneurs commercialize scientific or technological innovations. “The idea is for these businesses to create jobs and create wealth,” said Juan Figueroa, program director for the NSF’s Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnership.

The NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research Program and Small Business Technology Transfer Program first gives qualified companies up to $150,000 to develop a product. That company can then apply for a second grant, for as much as $500,000, to make their new product market ready. “These people need our guidance and support,” Figueroa said of the NSF’s grantees, who include many minority owned business.

Tim Dallas, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Texas Tech University, was helped in starting a business with a $150,000 NSF grant. He’s developed tiny “micro-labs” on chips that plug into a computer and simulate equipment normally found in a physics or engineering laboratory. His company’s name is “Class on a Chip” and its slogan is “the laboratory that fits in your hand.”

“Ours is the kind of high-risk endeavor that needs NSF help,” Dallas said. “The marketplace is fairly highly resistant to projects like ours.” Dallas is testing out his teaching tool at Lubbock High School, which has a majority of Latino students.

But there’s a way Latino students can help create new high-tech products themselves, through an NSF program that encourages partnerships between high-tech companies and Hispanic-serving universities. The students do research and other work for their business partner and receive the lion’s share of an NSF grant, usually about $40,000. Thunderhead Engineering in Kansas and Texas’ El Paso Community College established one such partnership. The school’s students helped the company develop software on fire emergency exit planning and a new heat sensor.

“The relationship was mutually beneficial,” said Thunderhead Engineering Vice President Brian Hardeman. “They got some exposure on how things are done and we got some help,” he said.

El Paso Community College also partnered up with a California company called Ondax, Inc. Olga Valerio, the executive director of the community college’s advanced technology center, said one student involved in the project had never travelled outside of El Paso. She was thrilled to visit California, and like her fellow grantees she benefitted from a hands-on lesson on how a high-tech company is run. One student involved in the NSF project went on to study engineering at the University of Texas, and another started his own business. “This opened the world to them,” Valerio said.

Ondax also formed an NSF partnership with Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., a two-year school with a student body that is about 70 percent Latino. The Southwestern College students created an award-winning project, competing with academic heavy hitters like Princeton, Brown and Cornell universities, and won a trip to Washington D.C. Their project involved the manufacturing of material that could be used in new laser technology Ondax is developing. “The whole experience made a huge impact on the students. It was a life-transforming event,” said Southwestern College chemistry professor David Brown.

The school has also formed a partnership with Sierra Medical Technology, a California company, to help create a sensor that measures acidity in the human throat and will help diagnose acid reflux and some respiratory problems. Students helped the company solve some manufacturing problems involving the new sensor. Sierra Medical Technology CEO Jeffrey Schipper said the drawback of working with community college students, who study for only two years, is that “you don’t get a lot of continuity. …But in terms of the research the [Southwest College] students did, it was very good. The NSF grant program allows students to get their feet wet in business…they get some exposure to how things are done and we get a little help.”

For the NSF’s Figueroa, the program is all about “real research and real work.”

“I don’t want any [student] to be picking up laundry or getting the coffee,” he said. “I want a real good relationship where everyone wins.”

Figueroa, a native of Puerto Rico who once worked for Bell Laboratories and Ericsson, believes “economic power is power” and Latinos must be more involved in high-tech industries that are increasingly dominant in the U.S. economy. “We need to be incubating entrepreneurs,” he said. “The next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs may very well have a Hispanic surname.”

Ana Radelat