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Risking Business

Somehow the image of Martha Egges, a homebased business owner from Middleton, Wisconsin, knocking on the padlocked, riveted, ironclad door of big government seemed ludicrous. Which is why Egges was skeptical about her chances of Uncle Sam actually handing her any money to develop her idea for virtual reality software that would allow researchers to collaborate electronically. When her sister, an engineer in Boulder, Colorado, told her about an associate who'd gotten a government grant to develop his product, Egges says her first reaction was, "That can't be right."

Shortly after that, she attended a meeting describing the government's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, and Egges was on her way down the red-tape carpet leading to the government grant gala. She started networking with other small-business owners who had successfully received SBIR grants, attended regional programs explaining government opportunities, got on the mailing lists of government agencies looking for SBIR partners and attended national SBIR conferences for small businesses.

Immersed in the politics of politics, Egges soon realized three things:

1. The government was actually there to help her. "Even though you, as the entrepreneur, have to do the lion's share of the work, there are actually a lot of free or low-cost government resources to help you pull together a proposal, which is the only real tool you have to win this kind of grant," Egges says.

2. The government's looking for a few good ideas, not at the size or location of a business. The fact that her company, Network Technologies & Applications Inc., was homebased "never came up in the process," Egges says.

3. The rumors of hard work and red tape are all true. "It's a very competitive process, and it required a lot of background work," says Egges. "People are probably intimidated by the amount of effort it takes to put together a proposal. There's a stringent administrative review of your proposal before it even gets to the technical review. We were initially thinking it was more than we could take on."

But take it on she did. And when Egges heard that NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, had bestowed her with a grant for $69,000, her initial reaction was "disbelief and jubilation."

Now Egges is hooked. "In some ways, it's a very difficult process, but there are many unexpected opportunities that come up as a result of going through it," she says. "You develop a much larger network and identify research partnerships that, in our case, led to other opportunities and other sources of funding."

For Egges, the door to government now has a welcome mat on its step. She plans to continue pursuing government grants as a regular part of her business and currently has her eye on a few prospects, including the National Institute of Standards & Technology-sponsored Advanced Technology Program, which would provide millions of investment dollars. The experience "opened doors in many areas, not just in government but also in the private sector," says Egges. "As soon as we start talking about research ideas, people are suddenly intrigued."

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