Episode  5 - SBIRLand Interview with Kristine McNiel from KY Innovation (Transcript)

Dr. Lara Skwarek:  I’m Dr. Lara Skwarek from Eva Garland Consulting and SBIRLand and I’m pleased to be here today with Kristine McNeil from the Kentucky Innovation Investment Program. Kristine is a project manager with KY Innovation, the Kentucky Cabinet of Economic Development’s entrepreneurial and innovation arm. Kristine, thanks so much for joining me today.

Kristine McNeil:  You’re most welcome, glad to be here.

Dr. Skwarek:  Why don’t we start? Can you give us a little sense of your background, and what it is you do at KY Innovation?

Ms. McNeil:  Yes, most definitely. I’m Kristine McNeil with KY Innovation, and I’ve been with the Cabinet in our State Government program for about seven years now. I’ve always been in the capacity of working with our entrepreneurs and our small businesses, our quick to scale high-tech companies. Specifically in the last four years, I’ve started working with the companies that have been seeking federal funding to support research for those high-tech ideas, and small businesses that are really looking to launch the next level winners. Angel investing, or grant funding, that’s really the niche I’ve been filling. I have a science background, biology background, and so on our team I volunteered and was delegated to take on this task. So I’ve enjoyed the journey so far.

Dr. Skwarek:  Fantastic. Tell us a little bit about the mission of the KY Innovation investment program.

Ms. McNeil:  Sure, yeah. A few years ago we created the Innovation Investment program. We refer to that as KIIP sometimes, we love acronyms in State Government. We created this program really to address challenges to our technology-based and our R&D companies. They were facing challenges trying to get their products established, get them to market. And our mission was really to support them in SBIR funding, STTR funding specifically. All of our Innovation Investment program activities revolve around that SBIR/STTR quest. Whether that’s through outreach or education, training events, or proposal assistance, our overall goal and mission is really to help them be more competitive for their SBIR/STTR funding.

Dr. Skwarek:  Can you tell us a little bit about how a Kentucky company who would be interested in participating in KIIP might be able to get involved?

Ms. McNeil:  Our Kentucky companies just have to reach out to me, to KY Innovation. They can do that by going to our kyinnovation.com website or emailing me at info@kyinnovation.com. We do a lot of referrals with our partner resources across the State. So really it’s… SBIR can often just be a networking and who-you-know kind of game, so we try to reach out and use our “boots on the ground” partners to help make those contacts and get those referrals to us. But yeah, once you get plugged into the ecosystem, it’s a pretty easy ask. All you have to do is ask.

Dr. Skwarek:  And then what does KIIP provide for companies that are participating?

Ms. McNeil:  We use KIIP as an umbrella for everything we do. We provide consulting proposal assistance, which is probably the biggest thing people want when they contact me about the KIIP resources. We also use that as an umbrella for our training programs. Whether it’s workshops based on SBIR, record keeping, budgeting, or just grant writing assistance, or understanding how the program works… like a one-on-one on SBIR. We kind of umbrella all of that under our KIIP program, but our proposal writing assistance is probably the most sought after component of that umbrella.

Dr. Skwarek:  And KIIP is completely free for Kentucky companies to participate in, right?

Ms. McNeil:  Correct. Exactly. We take that stress off the company. There’s enough to worry about.

Dr. Skwarek:  Fantastic. How else has Kentucky leveraged SBIR/STTR resources to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in the state?

Ms. McNeil:  Yeah, so we’ve really used SBIR, or the companies have used SBIR – I’ll give them the credit – to really make these clusters and multiply our entrepreneurship ecosystem. We’ve had several companies knit clusters that have been able to do spinoffs, do exits. One example that most Kentuckians are fairly familiar with is Apellis. They were able to exit, they spun off Liberate Medical and the technology to help people get off ventilators faster, which became very beneficial during COVID-19. That cluster, that ecosystem, it just multiplies. That energy around other companies that are in those same clusters, in those same networks, they just feed off of each other. And we really see the benefit of those success stories.

Dr. Skwarek:  Kentucky has a really generous SBIR/STTR matching funds program. Probably one of the most generous I’ve seen. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the program and when we can expect the next application round?

Ms. McNeil:  Yeah, it has been really generous in the past. It started in 2006. I believe the first awards were actually in 2007, but it started in 2006 just to help companies really get that commercialization piece, that profit potential from the beginning. The program matches Phase I and Phase II federal awards that are received by Kentucky companies – or if you’re outside of Kentucky, but you’re willing to relocate to Kentucky, you can apply for our matching funds. Since we started the matching funds program, it’s been several years now, we’ve really seen an increase in the number of federal awards that Kentucky companies have applied for and received. So we’ve really been able to leverage that success, just by offering that match to help our companies bridge that gap, going into their Phase II, to be much more successful in their Phase II.

Since 2007, we have awarded over $67 million in matching funds, which levers about $125 million in our federal funding that those companies have received. We really think the program has been a huge success. There’s a lot of energy around it, a lot of excitement. So we are starting to offer two rounds each year. The next round for matching funds will open this fall, with a spring and a fall solicitation window. The fall round will open August 30th of 2021. It will be open for eight weeks and close at the end of October 25th, I believe. Once that round opens, the application and the application instructions will be posted on our website at kyinnovation.com/sbir. If you have any questions about our matching funds application window, just let me know.

Dr. Skwarek:  And the matching funds program, it is competitive, correct? So it’s not that every company that receives SBIR/STTR funding automatically receives a match, you have to apply and be selected.

Ms. McNeil:  Yes, that’s true. It is rather competitive and we always have out of State interest as well. It is competitive –  companies apply, they submit their application, we have those reviewed by an independent third party reviewer, and based of the scores and our budget for that round – we are a State Government – so whatever our budget is for that round and based on the scores of those proposals is how we determine who gets funding. So yeah, it is highly competitive.

Dr. Skwarek:  So get your application started early if you’re interested.

Ms. McNeil:  That’s right.

Dr. Skwarek:  As always with all of these opportunities. You also offer financial assistance for other SBIR/STTR activities to Kentucky companies. Can you tell us a little bit more about your Micro Grant Program and some of the other initiatives you have?

Ms. McNeil:  Yeah. Our Micro Grant Program was really developed to assist companies that are pursuing SBIR/STTR with gaps in their services. We went around and talked to our companies – and we know some of those headaches that companies face – but we really wanted to see what gaps were left. We’re giving trainings, we’re giving technical assistance for proposal writing, but what else can we do to help these companies? So we started the Micro Grant, which was a small dollar amount just to help them with related activities, for exploring new markets, expanding their commercialization opportunities, some SBIR trainings that they wanted to attend, whether those be accelerators or educational events that had fees. Something that would help them get to that next level, be more competitive with their journey. Basically look at it as their SBIR journey.

We’ve had companies use it for market research. We’ve had companies use it for things related to marketing. Other expenses, travel expenses are always a big one, trying to get in front of customers or poster events, or things that they’ve needed to do like travel to the federal labs that they’re working with on their SBIR projects. So any of those little gaps we try to fill that may not be part of their matching funds, or they may not have received matching funds, or their federal SBIR/STTR grants aren’t allowed to be used for. We’re trying to find those holes and ways we can launch assistance in just another space.

Dr. Skwarek:  Obviously throughout these initiatives, you’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of different Kentucky entrepreneurs. What do you think are some of the most significant challenges that they’re facing?

Ms. McNeil:  Funding is always a challenge, right? Funding’s always the big question. So funding is a common issue. We like to work with companies, especially in our SBIR programs, to see how they’re using that funding, to make sure they’ve got a solid business foundation and background, that they’re developing that part, that it is not just all on the science. Because when the money runs out, we want them to have a business that is going to keep moving forward. How to get funding is always a big one – early stage funding, especially for that feasibility testing, Angel investing, some cohesive investment equity opportunities. We work with our local Angel groups as well to help bridge that gap, and to help these companies. One of our Angel groups is very hands-on with our companies with that business aspect. So not only is it funding, but it’s also that early stage business guidance. Kentucky’s not alone in this, but there is always that challenge that our Kentucky entrepreneurs face trying to recruit startup talent, and to attract some of the high-tech positions and talent that they need to get their business going.

Dr. Skwarek:  You mentioned challenges with funding and getting investment. KY Innovation’s involved in the Kentucky Commercialization Ventures program. Can you tell us about this public-private partnership, and the role of KY Innovation in the program?

Ms. McNeil:  Yeah. This is a unique partnership. A lot of our innovation commercialization comes out of our universities, our bigger research institutions, which are U of L, University of Louisville, and University of Kentucky so we partnered with our universities and created the Kentucky Commercialization Ventures. They’re a standalone entity that works with our universities with the purpose of really driving home those innovations and commercialization opportunities that are in our universities, getting that tech transferred out of the universities so it’s not just sitting on a shelf. The unique thing is that they’ve included all of the public universities and community technical colleges across the state. So even if you’re at a university, whether you’d be a student or a faculty who has a technology they would like to commercialize, your institution may not have the resources that a University of Louisville or University of Kentucky may have. It brings everybody up to the same playing field and gives everybody the opportunity of working together.

Some universities don’t allow a sabbatical or entrepreneurship leave. There’s a lot of challenges that come across trying to spend on technologies that are at some of our other universities, that may not be the same level of research institution. The Commercialization Ventures program helps our innovators and our entrepreneurs who need assistance from our universities, helps them access the technical assistance that is offered, helps them understand how to navigate that, how to play well with universities, how those partnerships look when they’re pursuing SBIR and STTR and how that relationship really works. They also provide patent and other intellectual property protection assistance. There’s a lot of questions around IP from our startups and people who are new to navigating that field. There’s a lot that they can help with and assist with with respect to licensing, and just getting started on getting that technology through to market.

Dr. Skwarek:  You guys have such an expansive network of programs. It’s always amazing to hear about it. Are there any success stories that you’re particularly proud of for companies you’ve worked with, or that really have stood out for you?

Ms. McNeil:  We have tons. We’re always proud. This is a very close ecosystem in the SBIR/STTR world. They all become like family. I’m proud of all of them. One of them I’ve been working with for a few years is PowerTech Water. They have a technology that removes dissolved solids like metals and salts, processes it out, so you get clean water. Great company. The founder started when they were in college, really on a pitch competition dare almost. It’s one of those great success stories like, “Hey, we really could do this, couldn’t we?” And they’ve been hugely successful.

They’ve used SBIR, they’ve used matching funds. They have really embraced the process and the journey and really taken off with it. And now they’ve moved off of campus, they’ve moved into a bigger location, are just hiring like crazy now and really have become successful. And they’re just a great success story, they have angel investing, they’ve really plugged into the ecosystem on how to get support and guidance. They know they can’t do it all by themselves and have really reached out for that community support. I always like to brag about them, and how the system works when you get plugged in and you use the resources available, then it can really help you on a successful journey.

Dr. Skwarek:  Some areas are sort of known for particular focus areas of technology, obviously Silicon Valley. Here in North Carolina and RTP, there’s a lot of biotechnology. Are there any up and coming focus areas in Kentucky that you’re seeing rise out? Or can you talk a little bit about some of the stronger technology communities?

Ms. McNeil:  Yeah, we have a lot. We are probably best known for our medical tech. Between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky, we do a lot of medical tech, whether it’s platform based, instrument based, or medicine based. There’s all sorts of ways that that plays in. That’s probably our strongest suit, but by far is not our biggest. We have a lot of companies that work in the Department of Defense sector and battery development. We have just a real hodgepodge of talent and companies that support some of our bigger industries based here in the state. We see a lot of stuff that’s popping up in little sectors here and there. Aerospace is always a big thing for Kentucky, and technologies that arise from that, which also feeds into our DOD presence. We do have a lot, there’s a lot to offer. Sometimes I think we get stereotyped for our medical tech, which is definitely a huge part of our ecosystem, but not all we have to offer.

Dr. Skwarek:  All right. I guess I’ll close with one final question. Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline that you want to tell us about?

Ms. McNeil:  Yeah, well, there’s all sorts of new things. Getting out and about, meeting with people is always high on our priority list, so getting back to that. The SBIR world is such a networking world… You really have to be one-on-one. You can only read so much, and you’ve really got to have that contact.

We did start a new DOD accelerator program, which was really successful, kind of did a pilot program. We are pretty excited about that and plan to do that annually. That was a six to eight week process where we took companies and matched them up with DOD solicitations that came out. There is such a unique strategy on how to be competitive with that. And we think we’ve got a lot more companies that are potentially a good fit with DOD, so we’ll help them navigate that, those are really successful programs. Hopefully we’ll keep that going, and that’s probably our most new, exciting thing right now.

Dr. Skwarek:  And if companies want to get involved in that, do they reach out to you? Do they reach out to KY Innovation?

Ms. McNeil:  Yeah, they can do that through our contact page on our kyinnovation.com website. They can just email me directly at info@kyinnovation.com.

Dr. Skwarek:  That sounds fantastic. Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, Kristine.

Ms. McNeil:  Thank you.

Dr. Skwarek:  And I look forward to interacting more in the future.

Ms. McNeil:  All right. Thank you, Lara. Appreciate it.

Dr.  Skwarek:  All right. Have a great one. Stay safe.

Ms.  McNeil:  You too. Thanks.

Dr. Skwarek:  Bye.