Investing in Small Businesses Fuels Transportation Innovation
Entrepreneurs spur growth throughout the United States by starting small businesses and by creating new technologies. Small businesses are perfectly poised to rapidly research, develop, and commercialize technologies that address the Nation's most pressing transportation challenges. Apple®, Amazon®, Google™, Nest®, and Yahoo!® all started out as small businesses—and now they are household words.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, one of 11 Federal SBIR programs, is an engine of growth in the transportation economy. USDOT awards contracts to domestic small businesses in relevant research areas. The program provides funding for entrepreneurs to develop new transportation technology and associated applications. Over the past 5 years, USDOT has spent $50 million to fund small businesses. The Department's operating administrations, such as the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, are integral to supporting the Department's Small Business Innovation Research awards activity.
Entrepreneurs have notched impressive results from their participation in USDOT's SBIR program. One company, Pulsar Informatics, developed a trucking fatigue meter that lets different users—such as trucking companies, individual drivers, and insurance firms—know how the risk of fatigue affects driver safety, performance, and cost. New infrared sensing technologies from Fuchs Consulting, Inc., can detect subsurface damage in concrete, and measure steel stress levels in bridges, enabling faster detection of deterioration and repairs. Tool, Inc., developed prototype seatbelt locking mechanisms which reduce the risk of children getting trapped in their seat belts.
"Everybody Wins," on page 22 in this issue of Public Roads, focuses on two small businesses, Intelligent Automation, Inc. and ZKxKZ, Inc. Working with FHWA, they are taking different approaches to develop and deploy new technologies to improve highway operations and safety. Intelligent Automation, Inc. is using artificial intelligence to optimize traffic flows. ZKxKZ, Inc. is developing innovations in mini-roundabout installation and materials.
Entrepreneurs excel in part because they have new ideas, they are free from bureaucratic constraints, and their small size enables them to be nimble agents of change. USDOT is expanding its role in supporting innovation in the private sector. For example, this year the Department held a virtual "Pitch Day" in late May for small business owners who have applied to this year's SBIR solicitation and were selected to present. Pitch Day is modeled on a similar Air Force event, where entrepreneurs can come and present their ideas, engage in a question and answer period with topic experts, and quickly hear about funding. For USDOT, this new process will result in contracts being awarded in weeks instead of months, so that small businesses can begin their work and receive funding sooner.
The SBIR program has funded thousands of entrepreneurs, many of whom are working toward commercializing their ideas. Jacob Crossman, a senior research engineer at SBIR beneficiary Soar Technology, says, "Without SBIR, Soar Technology would not have been able to execute this level of research and development internally." Soar Technology is working on a technology that can help solve the problem of handoff in limited autonomy vehicles.
The Department would like to give entrepreneurs more awards for promising technology. This Federal support of entrepreneurs helps expand research into new transportation technologies that can improve our lives, our transportation system, and our economy.
Deputy Assistant Secretary
for Research and Technology
U.S. Department of Transportation