In 1982 the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Development program was established by Congress to provide seed capital for research and development through 11 Government Agencies. For profit companies with less than 500 employees that are majority owned by US Citizens or permanent resident aliens are invited to submit proposals for a chance at funding for their innovative idea. Eleven Government Agencies (such as USDA, NSF, and DoD) participate, and each agency handles the grant proposals, review, and selection differently.
For winning proposals, the USDA provides funding of $100,000 for eight (8) months to cover concept development. This is called a Phase I grant. If a company successfully navigates concept development, they may apply for a Phase II grant. If awarded, a Phase II grant supplies up to $600,000 for two more years of concept development. The ultimate goal is commercialization of a new technology or innovation.
One company that at least in part owes its existence to the USDA SBIR program is Green Heron Tools. Based on the premise that garden tools work well for male body structures but not female, two dynamos, Liz Brensinger and Ann Adams, rounded up a team consisting of engineers, farmers and occupational therapists to develop a new concept: ergonomic garden tools for women. In 2008, Green Heron Tools launched.
Both women had full time day jobs and a dream to farm and sell their produce at farmers’ markets and restaurants. One of the women was a nurse and the other a public health educator by trade. They parlayed those skills into a consulting business, writing grants for not-for-profits. In their spare time they farmed a small plot of land in Pennsylvania. The women soon realized that the tools they were using on their small acreage farm were difficult to maneuver, inefficient, and not ergonomically correct. Because of their health backgrounds and aching bodies, they were painfully aware that this discomfort could lead to injury including cumulative trauma.
At one of the farmers’ markets where they sold their produce, the women struck up a conversation with a customer who just happened to be a mechanical engineer. They shared their idea for ergonomically designed garden tools with him. He was intrigued and quickly whipped up initial calculations proving ergonomically improved tools were possible. This motivated the women to conduct an on-line survey of women farmers. Through this they learned that THE single most important tool that needed a new design was a shovel. The women reached out to a state farming resource who told them about the USDA SBIR grants. The women applied, and in January 2009 they were awarded a $100,000 Phase I grant to develop their concept.
The team they recruited worked with them to bring that concept to reality. They conducted research and collected data. One of their team members turned out to be a doctoral student who decided to write his dissertation on designing ergonomic tools for women. Another, an engineer, used the research data collected to design several shovels and then created prototypes that were tested by women – students, gardeners, and farmers in the field. The researchers determined that women dig differently than men and thus need a different shovel design. The research data that was collected proved their hypothesis about ergonomics, shovel design, and the female anatomy.
It took months to fine tune the shovel design, locate a fabricator to do the manufacturing, determine sources for assembly and all the parts. Then, the fun part, what to call their new shovel. Team Liz and Ann decided to hold a Facebook contest to name their invention. This is where the term hergonomic was invented and where the “Hergonomic Shovel-Spade Hybrid” was born! Along the way there were wins and losses, but eventually the product launch occurred when Liz, Ann, and a car load of shovels made their way to the Mother Earth News Fair. More than two years after receiving the USDA Grant, HERS (the hershovel Hergonomic Shovel-spade hybrid) hit the market in 2011.
Ann and Liz have received a total of four Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the US Department of Agriculture, two Phase I grants and two Phase II grants. They are dedicated to staying true to their health-focused mission of creating sustainable green yard and farm tools ergonomically designed for women. Liz and Ann are the only full time employees of Green Heron tools, but jobs and the economy of the region and state are boosted because they are dedicated to sourcing their supply chain through state and regional manufacturers and suppliers.
I called Liz Brensinger for this article. She told me that she and her partner, Ann Adams, have a passion for health and experience in grant writing. Together they identified a need, found resources to develop an innovative product to fill that need, and continue to develop other ergonomic products that further their mission. Through survey results they identified a shovel held the greatest potential because it was identified as an ergonomic need and women were willing to pay a premium for it.
Along the way the women learned lessons such as, the price that people say they are willing to pay based on survey results doesn’t necessarily translate into what they are willing to pay when the product is available in the store. They learned that distribution of ergonomically correct tools is a challenge because inherently, ergonomic correctness is based on variables such as height. At the same time, many retail establishments can’t provide the space or buy the inventory for every size of tool. Also, the yard and farm tool business is somewhat cost prohibitive to break into and historically is male dominated. Despite business challenges, the women forge forward with new, innovative “hergonomic” products that fulfill their corporate mission.
Advice from these two trailblazers is simple. Follow your passion, don’t cut corners, and don’t chase money. Stay true to what got you started in the first place.
To all of you budding innovators out there — I am mentoring and coaching candidates for USDA SBIR Phase I grants. If you would like assistance in preparing a proposal for a Phase I SBIR grant, shoot me an e-mail at email@example.com. The RFA for the next award will be released in early July 2018, and the proposals are due in early October 2018. The grant money itself will be released in January 2019. If you have the passion, time, and drive, I am here to help.
I have heard it said that everyone has one idea a year that if followed through, could result in a million-dollar business. What is your idea? Maybe a better question is, are you like Liz and Ann? Do you have what it takes to see it through to the end?
Kyle White is a County Extension Educator (Lorain County) & Area Leader (Area 4) for OSU Extension.