First Impressions: an Introduction to EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program

By Nick Werner

The first day of work at a new job can be a daunting, maybe even a mildly-panic-inducing-event.  And chances are, every last one of us has experienced the first-day jitters at least a couple times in our lives and the butterflies will likely still be there for our next go around as “the new kid.”  In a lot of ways, the first day of work at a new job parallels the first day of class at a new school – you must begin to memorize the names and interests of your coworkers, learn about the type and amount of work you will be undertaking, find out what your bosses will expect from you, carefully pick where you want to sit at lunch, and so on.  However, work and school are also similar in that, after about the first week or two, you have started to find your niche in your new environment.

SBIR graphicIn my case, fittingly enough, my new environment was the Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA), and my niche was the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.  The SBIR program is a competition that, for over 30 years now, has served as a source of early-stage funding for innovative small companies in the green tech field.  Internally, it is a close-knit group of dedicated people, striving towards bettering the world by ensuring that the necessary funding goes to teams that can create tangible change.  And because we are all passionate about the same topics, it has made the transition from “new kid” to “team member” a relatively seamless process.

From the moment I stepped off the elevator, I was introduced to the idea that even though EPA has a number of independent programs, they are all interconnected. Student-oriented competitions such as Science to Achieve Results fellowships and the People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) program provide research funding to individuals and teams of students. Some of the projects have gone from competing in P3 to becoming a small business with an EPA SBIR contract – including Lucid Connects, Environmental Fuel Research (EFR), and SimpleWater.  In fact, both Lucid and EFR will be in attendance at the SBIR National Conference, which will be held in conjunction with the Tech Connect World Innovation Conference and Expo this week.  The conference will comprise of a number of events, including many informative panel sessions – highlighted by the one with Lucid and EFR on bringing innovative environmental technologies to market.

My role in this program centers on improving organization and efficiency, so that more focus can be placed on the individuals and teams who are striving to solve some of the most pressing challenges facing our world today.  The experience and freedom to solve problems in creative ways will certainly aid me in the future as I endeavor to leave my mark on the world as well.

 


photo of authorAbout the Author:
Nick Werner is a student contractor working with the People, Prosperity, and Planet (P3) program, and assisting with the SBIR program, both of which are in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  Nick is an avid sports fan who hopes to pursue a graduate degree in marine biology or marine conservation in the near future.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Sensor Technology for the 21st Century

By Joel Creswell, Ph.D. 

Small businesses are engines of innovation. They have the flexibility to take risks and try new things. The federal government harnesses some of this ingenuity through the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs. EPA is one of eleven federal agencies that participate in SBIR. These grant and contract programs fund research and development on federal priorities by U.S.-owned businesses with 500 or fewer employees. Since their inception in 1982, they have awarded more than $26 billion.

Before joining EPA as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in 2015, I worked for a small business in Seattle, WA, developing technology for analyzing trace metals in the environment. While I was there, we undertook a sensor development project made possible by an SBIR grant from the Department of Energy. One of my biggest challenges in applying for SBIR grants was finding the right funding opportunities for my area of expertise. At the time, there was no central location to browse through sensor funding opportunities – I had to read through hundreds of pages of solicitations from every SBIR-granting agency to find the right research topics. Because each agency has its own calendar for releasing solicitations and accepting proposals, staying on top of the relevant funding opportunities requires a significant time commitment.

Man holds up small sensor

EPA is supporting small businesses and the next generation of environmental sensors.

On March 1, 2016, finding SBIR funding opportunities for sensor-related research and development became easier. SBIR.gov posted Sensor Technology for the 21st Century to provide a central web location to help sensor developers locate SBIR and/or STTR funding opportunities across federal agencies. This site significantly reduces the effort required to browse sensor topics from a wide range of agencies. It also highlights the extent to which the U.S. Government is a significant driver of sensor innovation.

The new Sensor Technology for the 21st Century resource has several ambitious goals in addition to making it easier to find sensor funding opportunities. These include encouraging agencies to collaborate to fund different phases of the same research projects to increase their chances of commercial success; making each agency more aware of what sensor topics its peer agencies are funding; and avoiding duplicative investments across the government in sensor technology. This effort was developed in coordination with the federal working group on Exposure Science in the 21st Century and the National Nanotechnology Initiative under the White House National Science and Technology Council. So far ten federal agencies have contributed to this effort, including EPA.

If you are a sensor developer, whether for medicine, industrial automation, aerospace, water quality, or another field, take a look and explore the range of agencies that would consider funding your work. What you find may surprise you.

About the Author: Joel Creswell is an environmental chemist and a AAAS Fellow on the EPA Office of Research and Development’s Innovation Team. Prior to coming to EPA, he worked on developing environmental trace metals analyzers for a scientific instrument company.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Changing the Water Distribution Model

By Kelsey Maloney

A recent picture of Lake Mead

A recent picture of Lake Mead

If you’ve ever been to the Hoover Dam, you know that a picture just doesn’t do justice to its actual size. Here’s a fun fact: the Hoover Dam stands at 726 ft., a whopping 171 ft. taller than the Washington Monument. Although the Hoover Dam is a sight in itself, Lake Mead is nothing short of spectacular. On a recent trip there, I was surprised to see the striking mineral lines along the rock walls, a clear indicator that water levels were once significantly higher. It’s a stark reminder that areas in the United States, such as the Southwest, are increasingly facing water challenges, including droughts.

Through the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR), EPA is helping investigators from small businesses develop new technologies that can help change the water distribution model, putting less stress on freshwater resources (for example, Lake Mead). Researchers are looking towards desalination, a process that treats brackish (slightly salty) and seawater to turn it into usable freshwater.

Okeanos Technologies, a recipient of one of EPA’s SBIR awards, is developing and testing a new technology that they believe is more efficient than the conventional desalination processes.  The researchers believe that this new energy-efficient seawater desalination technology could provide “clean, cheap and plentiful water for everyone, anywhere.” Instead of using large conventional desalination plants, they are developing a microdevice that can desalinate water more efficiently. The technology will cut costs to a point where desalination can take place off-grid, allowing it to be used where it’s needed most.

Another business— Physical Optics Corporation, also a recipient of an EPA SBIR award—is developing a novel, cost-effective desalination system that will enable small water systems to include lower quality source water at their intake, further reducing the demand of ground and surface water supplies. The system is based on a portable desalinator unit that can convert brackish water and seawater into quality drinking water. Because of its size, the unit can not only be used to transform the intakes of small systems, but also in places where freshwater is unavailable.

Many challenges continue to threaten the quality and quantity of our drinking water resources, but through these two projects, we’re moving another step closer to expanding our drinking water sources.

To learn more about the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR), visit: http://www2.epa.gov/sbir.

 

About the Author: Kelsey Maloney is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Local Water Woes, No More? Advancing Safe Drinking Water Technology

By Ryann A. Williams

P3 Team shows their water filter

The SimpleWater company got their start as an EPA P3 team.

As a child growing up in Washington, D.C. I remember hearing adults talk about their concerns about the local tap water. Overheard conversations about lead content and murkiness in the water certainly got my attention. As an adult who now works at the Environmental Protection Agency, I know things have greatly improved.

Today, DC tap water is among the least of my concerns. I drink it every day. Frequent testing to confirm its safety and public awareness campaigns by DC Water (the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority) have put my own worries to rest. But in other parts of the world and even in some areas of the U.S., people still have a reason to worry about their drinking water: arsenic.

Globally, millions of people are exposed to arsenic via drinking water and can suffer serious adverse health effects from prolonged exposure.

This is especially true in Bangladesh where it is considered a public health emergency. Other countries where drinking water can contain unsafe levels of arsenic include Argentina, Chile, Mexico, China, Hungary, Cambodia, Vietnam, and West Bengal (India). In addition, parts of the U.S. served by private wells or small drinking water systems also face risks due to arsenic in their drinking water.

Remedies are expensive and both energy- and chemical-intensive.

In 2007, a student team from the University of California, Berkeley won an EPA People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) award for their research project aiming to help change that.

Explaining the arsenic removal project.

Explaining the arsenic removal project.

The students set out to test a cost-effective, self-cleaning, and sustainable arsenic-removal technology that employs a simple electric current. The current charges iron particles that attract and hold on to arsenic, and are then removed by filter or settle out of the water.

By the end of their P3 funding in 2010, promising results had allowed the team to extend their field testing to Cambodia and India, and move forward with the licensing and marketing of their product to interested companies in Bangladesh and India.

Today, the same group of former Berkeley students who formed the P3 team now own a company called SimpleWater.

SimpleWater is among 21 companies that recently received a Phase One contract from EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program.

SimpleWater aims to commercialize their product and bring their track record of success in Bangladesh and India to help Americans who may be at risk from arsenic exposure in their drinking water. In particular they’re focusing on those who live in arsenic-prone areas and whose drinking water is served by private wells or small community water systems that test positive for elevated arsenic levels. (Learn more about Arsenic in Drinking Water and what to do if you think testing is needed for your water.)

Thanks to EPA support, SimpleWater is working to reduce the threat of arsenic in small drinking water systems and private wells. With their help, millions of people may soon feel safer about their drinking water, and like me, have one less big thing to worry about.

About the Author: Ryann Williams is a student services contractor with the communications team at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. When she’s not working with the team, she enjoys other team activities like soccer and football.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.