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Ask an Entrepreneur: How Do Small Businesses Benefit from Federal Research Grants?

Ed note: In honor of Small Business Week, StartUp America is highlighting success stories and advice from American entrepreneurs

It is not always obvious what will come of a federal research grant. Would you expect that a federal research grant from the National Institutes of Health for “Image Slicing Spectrometer for High Resolution Sub-Cellular Microscopy” would eventually revolutionize oil rig and refinery safety?  The researchers themselves could not have guessed how far their invention would go.

Two years ago, Robert Kester and I founded Rebellion Photonics around technology he and his colleagues at Rice University created with support from a federal grant for basic bioengineering research. Since then, we have created seven jobs, raised $1.1 million in venture funding, become cash flow positive, and created products that truly make the world a safer place.

At Rebellion Photonics, we produce video cameras that can identify and quantify chemicals -- essentially our video cameras “see” chemicals, not just colors. While this type of technology, called hyperspectral imaging, has been around since the 1980s, researchers were forced to wait minutes, even hours to see results.  Our cameras take milliseconds, allowing the first true real-time chemical imaging video.

The technology was initially invented to see live chemical reactions within cells for medical research.  We do sell cameras for researchers, but with the help of additional grant funding for basic R&D we have been able to expand our product range.

Rebellion Photonics CTO Robert Kester

Rebellion Photonics CTO Robert Kester at work on the company's the medical imaging device, which uses hyperspectral imaging to identify and quantify chemicals.

Critically, our company won $1.6 million in competitive federal grants through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which provides $2.5 billion in annual seed-stage funding for small businesses meeting national research needs. As part of the White House Startup America initiative, the U.S. Small Business Administration has reinvented the website so that innovative companies like Rebellion Photonics can navigate these opportunities across all federal agencies. And thanks to recent bipartisan legislation, annual SBIR funding will increase significantly over the next several years, allowing thousands of other innovative companies to start up and grow.

Grant funding has allowed our company to do high-risk R&D to create high-impact products such as our Gas Cloud Imaging camera for the oil and gas market.  Instead of using traditional point detectors that are notorious for false alarms, rig and refinery workers will actually be able to see the leaks on their site.

I always wanted to start my own business and I’ve always loved physics and technology. I received a B.Sc. in Engineering Physics and a M.Sc. in Nanoscale Physics, then went to business school so I could learn how to bring cutting-edge technology from the lab to the marketplace. I named the company Rebellion Photonics because I believe that every startup is a rebellion. Entrepreneurs aren’t in it just for the money -- we put our hearts and souls into the business because we believe in our products and we believe that individuals can change the world.