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OU-Led OK Catalyst Programs, Partner Institutions Receive SBA Grant to Support Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurs from Underserved Communities

OU-Led OK Catalyst Programs, Partner Institutions Receive SBA Grant to Support Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurs from Underserved Communities

September 30, 2021

The Oklahoma Catalyst Programs (OK Catalyst), part of the University of Oklahoma’s Tom Love Innovation Hub, and five partner universities, received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration to launch the Hub of the Heartland program.

The SBA grant, one of only eight nationwide, was awarded through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR/STTR) Catalyst competition – part of a two-track, $5.4 million initiative from the SBA to generate investment in underserved communities within the innovation ecosystem.

The Hub of the Heartland is a one-year pilot to expand OK Catalyst’s award-winning programs for startup support in Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri while also creating a regional network of key experts and resources to launch dozens of startups across the region.

OK Catalyst is leading this collaborative partnership between OU and teams at the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, Wichita State University, the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Startup Junkie/University of Arkansas – leveraging the unique resources at each institution to create regional channels and centers of excellence.

“The Hub of the Heartland will bolster the ability of the heartland to secure SBIR/STTR funding and connect startups to the expertise needed to scale their ventures,” said Tom Wavering, executive director of the Tom Love Innovation Hub. “This regional partnership will better connect entrepreneurial resources across the heartland to nurture a regional innovation ecosystem while strengthening a diverse community of innovators.”

Studies have shown that underrepresented entrepreneurs face unique challenges, and the SBIR Catalyst grants are designed to help address these disparities. In 2020, the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that conducts entrepreneurial research and is located in the Hub of the Heartland region, surveyed entrepreneurs in the heartland to identify the challenges with starting ventures. The survey found that 40% faced geographical barriers, 44% faced network barriers and 47% faced knowledge barriers.

Through ongoing analysis of the heartland ecosystem and SBIR/STTR performance through the Kauffman Foundation, led by Wichita State University, and supporting analysis by Heartland Forward, heartland ecosystem leaders have identified a major need for access to SBIR/STTR-focused accelerator programs, as well as establishing stronger networks of grant writers, reviewers, mentors, partners and other key resources across the region. The Hub of the Heartland was proposed by this partnership of heartland ecosystem leaders to help address these issues.

This is the SBA’s first year to grant the SBIR Catalyst awards.

“This year’s cohort of winners emphasizes our commitment to equity. Our awardees have innovative plans to support underserved entrepreneurs, including women, people of color and individuals from underrepresented geographic areas,” said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman. “The success of the first-ever SBIR Catalyst track will ensure newly piloted regional collaboratives represent the diverse potential of the U.S. innovation ecosystem.”

Competitors were required to submit a presentation deck and a 90-second video to describe their overall plan for an award, including their work with targeted entrepreneur groups, experience with STEM/R&D and implementation plans for the prize funds. Applications were judged by panels of experts from the private and public sector with experience in early-stage investment, entrepreneurship, academic, startups and economic development.

More information about the SBIR Hub partners:

  • OK Catalyst, University of Oklahoma (Hub of the Heartland Program Lead) – Nationally recognized SBIR/STTR experts Tom Wavering and OK Catalyst offer best-in-class training programs to drastically improve the competitiveness and success of SBIR/STTR proposals. OK Catalyst’s impact since 2017 includes: 100+ startups served, 4X the national average win rate for SBIR awards, 21 first-time SBIR/STTR awardees, 67% underserved founders awarded, 500+ mentoring and training events, 4,000+ current and prospective entrepreneurs reached, and $16 million+ in total funding secured.

  • University of Kansas – The Office of Research includes corporate partnerships, innovation and entrepreneurism, technology transfer and research administration. KUOR is interested in supporting corporate engagement by working with large corporations, as well as supporting faculty, scientists and graduate students as they translate their lab research results into the marketplace through licensing and entrepreneurial initiatives.

  • University of Missouri – The Missouri Small Business Development Center’s (SBDC) foundation of network partners provide research-based education and technical assistance to thousands of business owners. Additionally, Mizzou utilizes MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service and has a group of mentors ready and willing to advise startups actively conducting R&D.
    • “OU’s leadership in SBIR/STTR training is bringing benefit to the entire region. The University of Missouri is excited to partner with OU and offer these services to MU teams. This program is a great example of a regional partnership that will elevate the heartland’s efforts to commercialize technologies.” -Lisa Lorenzen, Ph.D., University of Missouri
  • Startup Junkie, University of Arkansas – Startup Junkie, an office of Science Venture Studio, brings a combined 30+ years of experience and involvement working with entrepreneurs in STEM-related fields. Science Venture Studio also hires students in STEM-related disciplines, as commercialization fellows, from the University of Arkansas to assist companies with market validation, customer discovery and commercialization research.
    • “Startup Junkie is greatly appreciative of the SBA’s support and encouragement to collaborate with other SBIR/STTR support organizations across the region with the SBIR Catalyst prize funding to aid in propelling startups forward. We are all committed to strengthening our ecosystems by helping close the funding gap between breakthrough science and commercialization for companies and founders. The Hub of the Heartland project will strengthen the startups within our region and will effectively boost our ecosystem.” -Katie Thompson, Director of Science Venture Studio
  • University of Nebraska-Omaha – Nebraska’s Business Development Center (NBDC) provides a one-stop shop to STEM/R&D entrepreneurs, offering a multitude of services from registration requirements, business formation and business plans, to financial projection development. NBDC has assisted a number of pharmacology researchers apply for – and obtain – SBIR funding, growing a cluster of capability in the state.
    • “This partnership with OK Catalyst fills a gap for the Nebraska Business Development Center, and I’m eager to leverage our affiliation to help Nebraska-based businesses apply their innovative solutions to the challenges of Department of Defense. More broadly, I hope such regional cooperation becomes a model, developing and disseminating best practices for inclusive approaches toward supporting entrepreneurs in research and development (R&D).” -Josh Nichol-Caddy, Nebraska Business Development Center
  • Wichita State University – Leading the way for growth, WSU facilitates several business planning and technology development competitions and programs, providing assistance and/or financial support to technology firms, including NSF I-Corps Site, Innovation Fund Award and Encountering Innovation Week.
    • “We are excited to be part of the Hub of the Heartland SBIR Catalyst Award. This will assist in strengthening our region to be more competitive in the area of technology development and SBIR submissions.” -Sherry Whitson, WSU