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WisBusiness: SBIR Conference in Milwaukee Could Be Boon for State Entrepreneurs

By Brian E. Clark

MILWAUKEE – Susan Winter’s young company – Micrablate – makes medical devices that zap tumors with microwaves. At least that’s what it hopes to do.

For now, the two-year-old, Middleton-based start-up is one of scores of young Wisconsin firms that is seeking funding to advance the dream of its founders, who include radiologist Fred Lee and engineering professor Dan Van Der Weide – both of whom work at UW-Madison.

That's why Winter was at the fall national Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) meeting at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Milwaukee on Wednesday. Micrablate received a $300,000 SBIR grant this month, but she was at the conference to begin the process of raising at least $1 million more from backers.

“I’m also here for accounting guidance and to learn how to administer the funding properly,” said Winter, a native of Wales and a Northwestern MBA graduate. “In addition, I want to network with companies that have been down this path before.

She was just one of more than 500 attendees at the annual conference, which included everything from starry eyed individuals with a dream to professors to companies further along the development road than Winter’s.

Because the alphabet soup of federal agencies that offer SBIR grants hand out more than $2 billion in grants a year, getting the conference to come Milwaukee was considered something of a coup for Wisconsin. It opened Monday and runs through tomorrow. Agencies in attendance included NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Wisconsin Commerce Secretary Mary Burke called the SBIR the "foremost federal program for assisting small business research and development."

Dick Leazer, a principal with Wisconsin Investment Partners and a former managing director at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, called SBIR a “vital ingredient to getting new companies up and running.”

The Badger State produces a lot of “strong, basic research,” but he said entrepreneurs need help and funding from a variety of sources to turn those breakthroughs into successful companies.

Charles Hoslet, managing director of the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations, said he and others in the state were "thrilled" that this conference is coming to Wisconsin. His said his office, University Research Park and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation sponsored the welcome reception for the conference Monday night.

"That program has been a valuable source of funding for many early-stage Wisconsin companies," he said. "Many UW startup and spinoffs have taken advantage of SBIR funding to help them grow."

Winter said she hoped to meet with federal officials and investors. “I am absolutely glad that this is here in Wisconsin,” she said. “With three small kids at home, I can save a lot of time coming to a gathering like this in Milwaukee instead of having to go to Washington, D.C. This is great.”

Ayla Annac, another entrepreneur, echoed Winter’s sentiments.

“The connections that people can make here can be crucial to helping their companies grow,” said Annac, who has an MBA from St. Louis University.

She came to the conference wearing two hats. She represented the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Network and was advising a number of small start-ups.

She also serves as president of Invivosciences, a biotech company that makes -- among other things -- beating heart tissues from stem cells that act similar to an intact heart and can be used to come up with ways to test and create new drugs.

The McFarland-based company has received a number of grants during its six years, but is seeking more money to continue growing.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said the conference also was a chance to “showcase the research capacity we have in this state at a variety of institutions, ranging from UW-Madison to Marquette to the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“They are all of national quality, but need more visibility,” said Still, who moderated a panel discussion on Wednesday.

“Meetings that are taking place this week could lead to additional collaborations,” noted Still, who said Wisconsin firms received more than $60 million in SBIR grants during the past two years.

“There are 11 different federal agencies here, so this is a real achievement to have this here,” he said. “For entrepreneurs to have access to all of them, to hear what they are looking for and to be able to talk to others who are further along in this process is a real boon.”

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