Tales From the Front: Advice From SBIR-funded Entrepreneurs

Courtesy of Greg Goebel

The path to SBIR success may be grueling at times, so there are certainly benefits to hearing any lessons learned. I recently sought out SBIR-funded entrepreneurs who could speak candidly about their journey and provide some tips for companies who are embarking on that path. This post summarizes a conversation I had with Jonathan Pearl, founder and President of Perceptral LLC, and recipient of four SBIR awards.

Here are his thoughts and tips on how to obtain SBIR funding.

Dr. Pearl got quite a unique start. His Ph.D. thesis was titled “The Music of Language.” After feeling disillusioned by a stint in academia, he discovered his true entrepreneurial spirit and founded Sound Research and Design, which eventually became Perceptral LLC. His company aims to create synthetic voices that are indistinguishable from human speech in every accent, dialect and language. His eyes were opened to SBIR funding after attending a seminar offered by the University of Wisconsin—Madison Small Business Development Center and receiving guidance from the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Network in 2008. He went on to successfully receive two Phase I, one Phase I option and one Phase II SBIR contracts from the DoD. These awards were given to Perceptral to prove the feasibility of applying the company’s proprietary methods of sound segmentation and speech compression to the reconstruction of a meaningful signal from highly degraded or otherwise compromised digital sound transmissions, and to solve the problem of variable speed speech synthesis, with the intent to produce high quality, intelligible synthesized voices for use in training modules. Quite an interesting integration of Pearl’s expertise and the company’s technology that successfully addressed the needs of the DoD.

Here is what Dr. Pearl had to say in our discussion.

Know what the institute’s needs are, and know that what you have solves their problem. Dr. Pearl says it’s important to know what they don’t know, and to work off of that. Think of something that no one has thought of, but don’t put out fires that are not burning. He highlighted the importance of discussing the topic and company technology with the program director before applying.

He also thought that applicants must understand the differences between the agencies. He thought DoD was less concerned with credentials and had very specific topics and goals in mind, NSF focused heavily on the commercialization plan and looked more at the business as a whole, and NIH topics were more research driven. I have to agree.

Have a network of people you can depend on. He spoke highly of WEN. There are numerous equivalent organizations in other states – seek them out for help.

It’s not for the lighthearted. Dr. Pearl received comments from reviewers raising concerns that the technology had not been incubating at a University for the past 20 years and references that implied he was inadequate as a PI because he didn’t go to an Ivy League school. In the end, it really didn’t matter – good science gets funded.

He advises entrepreneurs that want stability and comfort to go ahead and keep your full-time job until you get funded. But don’t give up. (Dr. Pearl had seven other applications that weren’t funded).

Quite an interesting SBIR journey. Look for more upcoming posts on other entrepreneur’s experiences and advice on winning SBIRs.

And if you need assistance with your SBIR application, or have questions about the SBIR process, contact The Isis Group.

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