The USDA and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Grants – Seeding Innovation

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.

Liz and Ann

Liz and Ann – Founders of Green Heron Tools

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 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.

Small Business Innovation Research – New Initiative to Launch in Ohio!

Did you know that nearly half (46%) of Ohio’s workforce is employed by small business enterprises? According to the Small Business Administration, Ohio is home to 927,691 small businesses, roughly 80% of all business in Ohio.

In 2018 I will be working with other Extension professionals from across the United States to bring the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programming – coaching and support – to Ohio. I will be learning about the intricacies of the program and will be disseminating that information to each of our county offices. The ultimate goal: to attract and support Ohio’s entrepreneurs via SBIR funding.

The mission of the SBIR program is to support scientific excellence and technological innovation through investment of Federal research funds in key U.S. technologies. The ultimate goal is to support a strong economy through small business innovation and application. SBIR is a highly competitive program that encourages small businesses to engage in federal research and research and development efforts with potential for commercialization.

Car of the future?

SBIR specifically targets entrepreneurs, innovators, idea guys and gals, because this group is where most innovation and innovators thrive. The problem for this population historically has been the expense of conducting research and development. Many are boot strapping or funding their projects and start-ups. To combat this challenge, funds have been earmarked for these innovators and are distributed to qualified candidates through the competitive approval process.

The SBIR program blends four goals:

  • nurturing technological innovation
  • meeting federal research and development needs
  • extending special attention to under-represented groups (women, socially or economically disadvantaged individuals)
  • and driving private sector commercialization.

In short, the SBIR program offers an “incubator” of sorts that begins with innovation and ends with commercialization.

Annually, SBIR recognizes success stories from their alumna companies. I reviewed the list of those recognized by SBIR in 2015 and 2016. Of those 23 recognized by SBIR in 2015, only one was located in Ohio (Frontier Technology Inc.). And none were from Ohio in 2016. During 2015 and 2016 only 20 states had any companies recognized through SBIR for their work. But SBIR funding is available! Perhaps entrepreneurs are not aware?! It is my goal to present the SBIR challenge/opportunity throughout the state of Ohio and encourage would-be techies to give it a shot. Look for the date of the upcoming training, coming soon and plan to join us!

Here are two examples of the types of companies that received SBIR program funds:

Kyle White is an Extension educator, Medina County.

13 Tips to be a Motivational Leader

Feeling valued and that your work contributions make a difference are two key factors in job satisfaction. What can we do to help colleagues feel motivated about their work? With workforce an issue around the globe and employers struggling to engage star employees, here are 13 tips to be a motivational leader:

  1. Create a fair and supportive environment.
    • Do you provide the tools and resources employees need to succeed?
    • If people are failing or if there is turnover, the first place to look is at the supervisor in charge. Good supervisors cultivate good, highly efficient employees, but the reverse is true as well. People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses! Watch turnover and connect the dots!
  2. Invest in your human resources!
    • Provide development opportunities.
      • Career training – internal and external
      • Support their attendance at conferences and other learning/networking opportunities
    • Work on health and wellness as a corporate initiative, invest in activities for healthy living (healthy employees are more productive and lower insurance premiums!), some examples:
      • Gym memberships
      • Gift cards for steps using Fitbit® or other measurement tools
      • You pick one!
  3. Reward them.
    • After a vigorous project or particularly stressful time, offer some time off.
    • Gift cards — $5.00 to Starbucks goes a long way.
    • Present them with a certificate of thanks.
  4. Coach them for improvement.
    • When performance improvement is required, be sure to communicate that PROMPTLY. DO NOT wait for the annual performance review and use it as a area of improvement. A performance review should be considered a recap of information already communicated and a review of the results. A good leader does not blindside an employee with a never-before-communicated laundry list of complaints at their annual review.
    • Seek to counsel and to guide. Do not seek a “gotcha” moment! Value your team members. They are your most important investment.
  5. Make every effort to avoid shaming or embarrassing an employee when a difficult conversation is necessary.
    • Speak to them privately about performance related issues. They are people with feelings. Remember, most people want to do a good job and be considered a good performer.
  6. Strive for equal treatment of all employees.
    • Be careful to follow the same process in conversations and reviews with all employees.
      • Singling out an employee for special treatment, good or bad, sends a signal to other employees.
    • Be fair.
      • If you have a personality conflict with someone, dig deep into why that is occurring and work on yourself before you blame the other person. As Steven Covey says, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”
  7. Avoid the perception of favoritism by being observant and perceptive of how your words and actions are being interpreted.
  8. Establish a culture of respect.
    • Treat people with dignity and respect.
    • Listen and work as a team to resolve issues. Do not jump to a conclusion after hearing one side of an argument.
  9. Communicate clearly and frequently expectations and how you measure success.
    • Do your employees clearly understand your expectations?
      • Are expectations written down?
        • Take responsibility when there is miscommunication particularly regarding job duties and expectations. Start with:
          • Is there a job description and if so, is it up to date?
          • Do employees understand the organizational Mission and Values?
  10. Provide annual reviews and regular feedback in-between reviews so employees know where they stand.
  11. Show up and be present.
    • Don’t be invisible. Let people see you.
    • Smile and be positive.
    • Ask about them, their weekend, whatever you know interests them.
  12. Make it personal.
    • What do you know about the people who report to you?
    • How do you recognize milestones and accomplishments?
    • Do you know anything that is important to that employee aside from work?
    • Is the employee in need of support due to a difficult life experience?
  13. Strive to create meaningful work.
    • Is the assigned work fulfilling – in any way? If not, what can you do to improve the situation?
      • Ask the employees – Communicate!
        • What improvements could make their job more rewarding?
        • What about their job do they like and do not like?
      • Work with employees to provide opportunities to do what they like and to improve their job if it is reasonable.

According to the June 13, 2017 Gallup Chairman’s Blog, 15% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs. A separate Gallup Poll reveals that 70% of employee motivation originates with the employee’s manager. Imagine if employees were motivated and engaged because of their manager? According to Gallup, motivated employees are 31% more productive which results in an increase in sales of 37 percent. Additionally, motivated employees are 87% less likely to quit than their demotivated counterparts. Turnover is one organizational expense that can be limited via support and training by skilled motivational leaders.

In short, your leadership style has an impact on your organizational culture and environment. Take the time to better understand yourself so you can better support your teammates. Learning about yourself can be eye opening and life changing; and the risk is worth the reward.  After all, it does take heat and pressure to create a diamond!

Kyle White is an Extension Educator, Medina County & Western Reserve EERA.

Everybody has a story

Columbus Dispatch headline

The Columbus Dispatch – August 25, 2016

Everybody has a story. We are all raised somehow, somewhere, by somebody. We are influenced, and we have experiences – good and bad – that shape us. At the end of our lives we leave a footprint, a legacy. Some legacies endure for eternity such as Socrates, Aristotle, DaVinci, and maybe our own George Washington. For most of us our legacies are much more fleeting than these bold examples of humanity. We may be remembered by our friends, and perhaps by our family for a generation or two. But what do they remember and what stories are passed down?

These ruminations came to me after participating in a recent statewide Opiate Crisis Conversation. After the conference I went to dinner with my son who is in his 30s. He told me the story of his roommate who I will call Nick. Nick never met his father, we don’t even know if Nick knows his father’s name. Nick’s dad left his mother when she was pregnant and never came back. Nick’s memories of his mother are that she was a drug addict. That’s how he pictures her, that is his memory of her, that’s what he says when he talks about her. We don’t know what drugs she took, we don’t know if she had a job or where she lived. But we do know she was a drug addict.

Because of his mom’s addiction, Nick was raised by his grandparents. When Nick did spend time with his mom he remembers danger and fear. His mom would take him on adventures, but not to Cedar Point. His adventures were accompanying his mom when she bought drugs.  Instead of visiting the library or staying home and reading, he saw his mom beaten up by boyfriends. These are his memories of his mother.  Nick’s mom died from the ravages of drug abuse before he graduated from high school. He went on to graduate from college and has steady employment with a good company.

When you think about what Nick saw, what he experienced as a very young and impressionable child, what his grandparents were feeling, and the total hopelessness and despair of his mother, it is heartbreaking. Every one of them, each in their own way were impacted, were terrified, were living on the edge, and all of them lost a piece of their soul. His mother lost her life.

His grandparents became his loving parents raising their grandchild while watching their own daughter dissolve under the spell of drugs.  They were parents who watched their adult child lie, cheat and steal because of the craving and dependency that drew her in more and more each day, promising to relieve the pain and ironically killing her at the same time. Imagine the fear felt by grandparents for their grandchild when he spent time with his mother and the stress of raising their grandchild while watching their own child self-destruct. In a different time and a different place they would have been enjoying retirement, instead they were surviving day to day, but not really living.

Then I think of the ripple effect of one person’s actions on a community and on a family. Nick’s grandparents were stable, law abiding citizens, they were you and me and our neighbors, so was his mom, so is he. But Nick’s mom took a turn, a wrong turn and never recovered.  She ended up dying at a young age, leaving behind a son who talks about her in terms of her drug use, and how he saw her treated. That is her legacy. That is her footprint.

Nick is in his 30’s now, and doesn’t have a serious relationship. I don’t know if he ever will. His filter, his frame of reference if you will, is something I cannot even begin to fathom. What is even more profound is that this story isn’t a rare or an isolated incident. I am aware of many stories like this, so many that I have lost count. So I circle back to my original thought. Everyone has a story, and everyone leaves a footprint. We all hurt people and are hurt by people. We all have successes and failures and make mistakes. Sometimes we recover, sometimes we don’t. As a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a friend, and a daughter, I hope that my legacy transcends my mistakes and that the world is gentle when (and if) I am remembered. When I think of all the lost souls, the wasted lives, and the fact that each of us is one decision away from being there, I am very grateful for today. That is my story. What is your story?

Ohio Drug Overdose Data by County

Kyle White is a County Extension Educator in Medina County (Western Reserve EERA).

Introducing Kyle White – New CD Educator for Medina County

White, KyleIt is a great pleasure to join The Ohio State University as a Community Development Educator! In this, my first blog for OSU Extension, I will share a little bit about my background, my specialties, and what I hope to achieve in this exciting role.

My career has spanned over 30 years with almost as many twists and turns. I have worked in higher education in Alumni and Development at North Central College, Naperville, Illinois, and Stanford University Law School, Palo Alto, California, as well as Kent State University in Community Outreach. For several years I worked with my husband building his manufacturers rep business.

White, Kyle Introduction 2016-06-27Most of my career has been dedicated to sales and marketing. My experience includes sales and marketing of products and services in healthcare, education, and technology for manufacturers and distributors in territories spanning the United States. I have been honored to earn sales awards, including Presidents Club and Rookie of the Year. I am drawn to the challenge of learning, researching, planning, and executing. Beyond planning, I am skilled in training, product launches, and event planning.

At McDonalds Corp, as a Business Consultant to franchise owners, I gained the utmost respect for the business acumen, planning, and work ethic of those owners, their managers, and the entire staff. During leadership training at Hamburger University in Oakbrook Illinois, I was awarded the Gold Hat Award for Leadership by my classmates. This honor is bestowed on one class member who personifies qualities of leadership and character.

As a member of the Ohio State University Extension Office in Medina, I will contribute my experience, dedication, and skills in planning, discovery, and continuous improvement to assist the community, businesses, and government in efforts that improve the quality of life in Medina County. I have lived, worked, volunteered, and raised my family in Medina County for over 30 years and I am a northeast Ohio native. This county is my home and community service is my passion. In the weeks and months to come, I am looking forward to digging in and contributing my skill, resourcefulness and energy to projects that will result in valuable outcomes for county residents. I invite you to join me! Please reach out to me with your ideas, challenges, and dreams! I can be contacted by e-mail at, or follow me on twitter @OSUXTBucKyle.

Kyle White is the County Extension Educator for Community Development in Medina County (Western Reserve EERA).