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Innovation powered by the Federal Government’s Seed Fund

By Shelly Kapoor Collins

Recently I had the honor of speaking at the SBA’s annual Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) conference. The SBIR Program encourages the participation of qualified small businesses to further the nation’s scientific research and development agenda and accelerate innovation through entrepreneurship. Participating small businesses also have the potential to profit from their innovations, funded by the SBIR Program, often referred to as America’s seed fund.

The panel on which I spoke “Growing and Empowering Novel STE(A)M Pipelines” facilitated a discussion on how the intersection of art and science fuels healing through innovation as well as the engagement of underrepresented communities. The late Steve Jobs, often referred to as the modern day Benjamin Franklin, said it best when he summarized his strategy for success: “Technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities”. 

My copanelists included Brad Guay, Manager of the STTR Program for the US Army, Lawrence Murphy, Chief Global Design and User for GE Healthcare, and Bill O’Brien, Sr. Advisor for Innovation to the Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts. The varying roles of my copanelists and our mix of experiences from disparate fields highlighted the fact that when different points of view are applied to a singular problem, the resulting solutions are creative and outside the box.

For example, Bill spoke about the use of art therapy at the National Intrepid Center of Excellent (NICoE) at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to heal the wounds and minds of our active-duty service members. Service members used art in the form of a mask to facilitate communication. The mask served as a concrete image which unleashed their ability to verbally explain themselves and discuss their feelings. In another example, GE Healthcare displayed an incredibly impressive use of art and empathy in their pediatric oncology treatment centers to put parents and patients, sometimes as young as 4 years old, at ease. Through the use of design, art and process innovation, GE Healthcare transformed the starkness of the children’s radiology units into a jungle, added underwater scenes with murals, and painted the entrance to the MRI machine into a train tunnel. This led to an astounding 300 kids who previously would have been sedated going through an MRI scan without any anesthesia.

Thus, the NICoE and GE Healthcare make a compelling case for the use of art combined with science to drive healing and innovation. But, it’s just as critical to unleash the power of small businesses and underserved communities such as Women and Minorities to further our country’s research and development. We need to equally enable innovation across America including our underrepresented communities by providing them tools which will boost our economy. For example, the Federal Government has released scores of open data sets which if analyzed and used properly, can create jobs across a myriad of industries. The GovLab’s Open Data 500 study, the first comprehensive study of its kind, has identified more than 500 companies that use open government data to fuel innovative businesses in agriculture, finance, , energy, education, healthcare, and many other sectors of the economy.

Underrepresented communities must be given the tools they need to participate in entrepreneurship and private sector companies such as GE Healthcare, Intel and many others can use their influence and resources to enable diversity and inclusion.  To this point, Intel recently launched its $125M fund to finance Women and Minority led startups. Research shows a correlation between the number of women on boards and higher corporate profits. Companies with more women board directors outperform by 66 percent in terms of return on invested capital, by 53 percent in terms of return on equity, and by 42 percent in terms of return on sales. And, yet another study indicates that one-third of executives reported increased profits from their investments from employing women in emerging markets.

In closing, the SBIR panel was a success and well received. Despite the various industries of the copanelists, two common threads emerged including applying the importance of applying design to technology, and the need for a collaborative culture and workspace because even the most basic of human engagement such as eye contact and talking to one another can result in innovative solutions. 

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