Challenge: Facilities that centralize prototyping and manufacturing resources can help reduce costs for businesses, encourage knowledge sharing, and accelerate commercialization. However, early-stage startups often face the “technological valley of death.” They require thorough performance data to build investor confidence in their prototypes, but often struggle to secure funding to pay for testing and validation resources.
Solution: State leaders should consider establishing an innovation voucher program that serves local innovators and helps them bridge the technology development gap. Through the innovation voucher program, small businesses could apply for vouchers to use services at testing facilities while the state could pay these facilities to work with small businesses. Services available for voucher exchange could include testing and consultations with technical experts to refine manufacturing products and processes. Program administrators, testing facility leaders, and small businesses could work closely together to ensure services covered by vouchers are properly valued and in alignment with industry needs. Providing the opportunity for small businesses to benefit from in-state research expertise and infrastructure could encourage local manufacturing and deployment.
Examples: The New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program is a successful model that has helped 2,341 businesses gain access to technology at the Sandia or Los Alamos National Labs through a competitive application process that matches qualified businesses to lab scientists. The state government provides funding for the program, incentivizing the labs to engage with local small and medium-sized businesses.
RevV! is a state innovation voucher program that leverages resources and expertise at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to support business growth in Tennessee. Through the program, local manufacturers can receive vouchers to tap into ORNL’s capabilities and exceptional facilities in advanced manufacturing demonstration; advanced materials processing, characterization, and fabrication; and computational science. Managed jointly by ORNL and the University of Tennessee, RevV! was initially piloted in 2015 with $2.5 million in state funding as part of a regional cluster development strategy. It has since received a second round of $2.5 million, and in 2018 it will become a permanent program with additional funding from the state. RevV! is open to any business that employs at least ten people and currently manufactures a product. Innovation voucher amounts vary, but some companies have received as much as $125,000 to take advantage of the unique offerings of ORNL.