John Ferland and Nathan Johnson of Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co. got a rare opportunity Friday to speak face-to-face with a representative of the U.S. Department of the Navy about a new prototype they are working on for underwater power generation.

Ferland and Johnson were among more than 160 entrepreneurs who met Friday in Portland with representatives of about a dozen federal agencies looking for new technologies that could have military or other government applications.

The all-day meeting – the first of its kind in Maine – was sponsored by the Maine Technology Institute and the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBA oversees two programs – Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer – that pay small businesses nearly $3 billion a year to conduct research and development that meets the needs of federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re hoping today’s meeting gives us some insight on how to advance our relationship with the SBIR/STTR program,” said Ferland, Ocean Renewable’s president and chief operating officer.

Ocean Renewable is one of about 100 Maine businesses that have received a total of roughly $100 million in grants from various federal agencies through the SBIR and STTR programs. Maine Technology Institute President Brian Whitney described Friday’s meeting as an opportunity for Maine entrepreneurs to “see behind the curtain” with regard to how federal agencies decide which private research projects to fund.

In all, federal agencies spend about $2.5 billion each year on SBIR grants and another $350 million on STTR grants. In many cases, the agencies also become customers of the grant recipients. The purpose of Friday’s meeting was to give Maine small businesses a better understanding of what types of research and innovation the agencies are looking for, and how to apply for grants.

“The SBIR is one of those great programs that not very many people know about,” said SBA New England Regional Administrator Wendell Davis, addressing an audience of entrepreneurs at the beginning of Friday’s meeting. “If you put that hard work in, there’s some pretty incredible success stories.”

U.S. Naval Air systems Command SBIR/STTR Team Leader Tony Archer said the Navy is interested in funding a variety of research and development projects related to weapons, sensors, advanced materials, information systems, vehicles and electronics.

For example, it hopes to help advance the development of more durable materials to protect underwater equipment and vehicles from the ocean’s corrosive effects, Archer said.

“We’re looking for better materials, better metals, better coatings,” he said.

Many of the technologies developed with SBIR and STTR funding have been applied to commercial products, often with applications far beyond their original purpose, Archer said.

For example, he said, a project to develop a marine mammal detection and mitigation system for the Navy went on to be applied in lifesaving devices used by lifeguards.

“The moral is, your technology might start in one direction and one area, and end up in a totally different place,” Archer said.

Sloan Armstrong of the Missile Defense Agency told the entrepreneurs that the agency is locked in a constant struggle to stay ahead of foreign adversaries’ advancements in missile capabilities and capacity, and that it needs the help of small businesses.

“You all are much more affordable than our big primes,” Armstrong said, referring to large defense contractors.

SBIR and STTR grants offer an unusual financial opportunity for small businesses with unproven technologies because unlike venture capitalists, the government agencies don’t take a piece of the company, said Chris McNeal, senior adviser for strategy and operations at the SBA’s Office of Innovation and Technology.

But to be awarded a grant, the business must first convince one of the federal agencies that the product it seeks to develop would fill a specific gap in that agency’s capabilities.

“You need to communicate that, ‘I understand what the need is, and this is how we’re going to address that,'” McNeal said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jcraiganderson

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