Small Business Innovation Research

Seeding Environmental Innovation

By April Richards

EPA's Small Business Innovation Research team at the conference.

EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research team at the conference.

I love my job, but every so often it’s a good idea to get one’s professional batteries re-charged. Recently our EPA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) team had the chance to do just that when we attended the 2015 National SBIR/STTR Conference. We spent three days getting our annual dose of inspiration by meeting environmental entrepreneurs, the managers of the other 10 federal SBIR programs, and many successful SBIR awardees who have gone from an innovative seedling to a growing green business.

The conference kicked off with a celebration of successes—the announcement of the annual Tibbetts Awards. Small Business Administration (SBA) officials, SBIR program managers and awardees gathered in one of the stunning 19th century rooms of the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Surrounded by marble walls, 800-pound bronze sconces and elaborately tiled floors, we recognized the companies, individuals and organizations who received one of the 32 “Tibbies” awarded this year. PCI Corporation, a past EPA SBIR company, was among this year’s winners.

While it was gratifying to see one of EPA’s SBIR companies recognized, I was inspired personally by the special recognition of Roland Tibbets, the “Father of SBIR.” The SBIR program was an innovation in 1976 when Tibbetts piloted the program to champion small business’ access to federal funding for research and development. SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet honored Tibbett’s memory saying, “His work revolutionized the innovation landscape in this country and further improved its economic vitality.”

After the awards, conference participants attended workshops and panel discussions on nuts and bolts, future directions, and SBIR success stories. During the conference keynote address, the SBA Administrator Contreras-Sweet highlighted one of those success stories. She briefly told the story of one EPA SBIR awardee, Ecovative Design, that is using mushrooms to create sustainable building materials and said, “That’s what SBIR is all about!”

I wanted to stand up and cheer, “That IS what EPA’s SBIR Program is all about – seeding innovation AND making a difference for the environment.” But I just smiled like a proud parent, remembering how every day EPA helps small businesses translate their innovative ideas into commercial products that address environmental problems.

Later in the day, we got down to the business of talking to small business owners. Over two days we spoke to over a hundred entrepreneurs about their ideas for environmental technologies and how the process for SBIR funding works.

The most asked question – “Is my idea a good fit for EPA’s program?” EPA’s next solicitation opens this summer and includes a broad range of topics. My hope is that our presentations and one-on-one communications will help the next group of small businesses navigate their way to success.

I like to say that EPA’s SBIR is a small program with a big mission. Now that we’re back in the office, re-inspired and re-charged, we’re more ready than ever to get back to the awesome work of seeding innovation to protect the environment.

 

About the Author: April Richards joined EPA in 2001 and is Program Manager for the Agency’s SBIR Program.  She appreciates the practicality and commercial edge that small businesses bring to environmental protection.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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On the Road from Cajun Country to the Heartland to Seed Small Business Innovation Research

By Greg Lank

Group holds up a sign that reads "SBIR Road Tour"

On our “Seeding America’s Future Innovations” tour

In April, I had the pleasure of representing EPA on a bus tour during the second leg of “Seeding America’s Future Innovations,” a national effort to spread the word about the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. The two programs are coordinated by the Small Business Administration and administered by EPA and 10 other federal agencies. Together—“America’s Largest Seed Fund”—they provide $2.5 billion of contracts and other awards to small, advanced technology firms to spur discoveries and facilitate the commercialization of innovations.

We traveled from the Cajun country of Long Beach, Mississippi and Ruston, Louisiana through Texas and into the heartland, including Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Wichita, Kansas and finally Columbia, Missouri.  At every stop, each representative shared an overview of their agency’s SBIR program, including existing opportunities and exciting success stories of now thriving businesses have come out of the program.

Following the presentations, companies had the rest of the morning to sit down with representatives from the SBIR program of their choice for one-on-one meetings and to get answers to their questions.  The primary question that every company asked me was if their technology would fit into one of EPA’s SBIR topic areas. And I learned that there is broad interest in water resources and energy recovery—exciting topics where innovation can lead to the recovery and reuse of resources that are presently lost in the waste stream.

Oklahoma City National Memorial

Everyone was humbled and honored to pay their respects at The Oklahoma City National Memorial

In between locations the Road Tour stopped at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and the National Institute of Aviation Research (NIAR). Everyone was humbled and honored to pay their respects at The Oklahoma City National Memorial, which honors the victims, survivors, rescuers, and others affected by the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. At NIAR, I was fascinated to see the testing that goes into making air travel safe globally.

Each packed-house tour stop proved to be a phenomenal platform to collaborate, educate and learn.  Collaboration occurred between federal agencies, academia and innovators.  Finally, all who attended functioned as educators and students.  Not only were we able to educate the attendees about our programs, but meeting them provided us with the opportunity to learn about the exciting innovations coming down the pike from our Nation’s best and brightest. The next tour will be the north central tour from July 13-18. That will be followed the final tour, August 17-21 through the Pacific Northwest.

To learn more about EPA’s SBIR program, visit www.epa.gov/ncer/sbir.

About the Author: Greg Lank is a mechanical engineer in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He manages grants and contracts for the SBIR and People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) programs, which facilitate the research, development and deployment of sustainability innovations.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Rethinking Wastewater

By Marguerite Huber

glass of beer

The next time you enjoy a beer you might be helping the environment.

The next time you enjoy a cold, refreshing beer or glass of wine, you might also be helping the environment. Over 40 billion gallons of wastewater are produced every day in the United States, and wineries, breweries, and other food and beverage producers are significant contributors.  For example, the brewing industry averages five or six barrels of water to produce just one barrel of beer.

But where most see only waste, others see potential resources. What we label “wastewater” can contain a wealth of compounds and microbes, some of which can be harvested.

One innovative company that has recognized this, Cambrian Innovation, is harnessing wastewater’s potential through the world’s first bioelectrically-enhanced, wastewater-to-energy systems, EcoVolt. (We first blogged about them in 2012.)

Cambrian Innovation is working with Bear Republic Brewing Company, one of the largest craft breweries in the United States. Located in California, which is suffering from severe drought, Bear Republic first began testing Cambrian’s technology to save water and reduce energy costs. Fifty percent of the brewery’s electricity and more than twenty percent of its heat needs could be generated with EcoVolt. Compared to industry averages, Bear Republic uses only three and a half barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer.

The EcoVolt bioelectric wastewater treatment system leverages a process called “electromethanogenesis,” in which electrically-active organisms convert carbon dioxide and electricity into methane, a gas used to power generators.  The methane is renewable and can provide an energy source to the facility.

Rather than being energy intensive and expensive, like traditional wastewater treatment, Cambrian’s technology generates electricity as well as cost savings.

Furthermore, the EcoVolt technology is capable of automated, remote operation, which can further decrease operating costs.

EPA first awarded Cambrian Innovation a Phase I (“proof of concept”) Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2010. Based on that work, the company then earned a Phase II contract in 2012 to develop wastewater-to-energy technology. Cambrian Innovation has also developed innovative solutions with funding from other partners, including the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With access to water sources becoming more of a challenge in many areas of the country, Cambrian’s technology can help change how we look at wastewater. It doesn’t have to be waste! Wastewater can instead be an asset, but only as long as we keep pushing its potential. That can make enjoying a cold glass of your favorite beverage even easier to enjoy!

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Waste to Value: EPA’s Role in Advancing Science and Business

Electrogenic bioreactor containing "Bactobots" and wastewater.

Electrogenic bioreactor containing “Bactobots” and wastewater.

By Marguerite Huber

In case you missed it in the news, a New-York-based micro-robotics firm, Tauriga, acquired Cincinnati-based Pilus Energy last month. In the business world, acquisitions and mergers happen all the time, but I bet you are wondering what makes this one significant to the EPA?

Tauriga CEO, Seth M. Shaw describes Pilus Energy’s technology as “extraordinary.” What makes it so is that Pilus Energy operates with the goal of turning waste into value, turning sewage into electricity to power approximately 275 million homes a year!

Their innovative technology claims to transform dirty, wastewater into electricity, as well as clean water, and other valuable biogases and chemicals. The secret to this venture is the help of genetically enhanced bacteria, given the more affectionate name of “Bactobots.”

“Essentially we are mining wastewater for valuable resources similarly to gold mining companies mining ore for gold,” Shaw confides.

Now this is where the EPA comes in.

Dr. Vasudevan Namboodiri, an EPA scientist with 20 years of research and development experience, explains that EPA and Pilus are investigating the potential for Pilus Energy technology in the water industry.

With EPA’s technical oversight, Pilus Energy’s goal is to eventually build an industrial pilot-scale prototype.  This type of technology is still in its infancy and will be many years away from large scale production, Dr. Namboodiri explained.

Large- scale usage of the technology could possibly be revolutionary, and provide great benefits in the future. Tauriga CEO Shaw notes that, “There is an enormous global need to maximize all resources available, due to population growth and energy costs.” If applied to whole communities in both developing and developed countries, there could be major benefits such as:

  • Reduced wastewater treatment costs
  • Creation of a renewable energy source
  • Valuable chemical byproducts that could be used towards renewable products
  • Higher quality water for both drinking and recreation
  • Healthier food due to less contaminates in soil
  • Improved ecosystem benefits or services and biodiversity if applied in an entire watershed

Even though the large scale benefits will likely not be seen until years from now, the partnership between Pilus Energy and the EPA helps support EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Services Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Small Business Innovation is Mushrooming

Sometimes I worry that one of the enduring manmade wonders of our time will be the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You know the Garbage Patch – the huge concentration of marine debris (mostly plastics) floating in the Pacific Ocean. It may still be there centuries from now. I wonder if a thousand years from now, tourists will visit the Garbage Patch the way we do the Roman Coliseum or the Pyramids. They’ll take pictures and stand there with their mouths agape wondering “how could they let this happen?”

Personally, I’m hopeful we can reduce the “greatness” of the garbage patch – and solve many of our other waste disposal problems – by reducing packaging or at least making it more sustainable.

Wine packaging

Wine packaging made from mushroom mycelium by Ecovative Design

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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