For startup companies, the difference between success and failure may be simple to identify — generating the capital needed to keep the lights on while developing a product for market.
But finding that funding is often tenuous and challenging.
“There’s this ‘valley of death’ when you’re trying to raise money and go to market,” according to Clark Cahoon, fund manager for Utah’s Technology Commercialization and Innovation Program. “We hope to bridge that gap.”
The program run through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development has $2.5 million available this year for competitive grants to small businesses and university teams to help fast-track commercialization of technology innovations. After awarding grants, Cahoon said, GOED also offers access to other resources aimed at helping the company ultimately become self-sustaining.
“(We) connect them with mentors and assist them with plugging some of the holes in their business and assisting them in becoming stronger,” he said.
Recipients typically receive $100,000 for first-time awardees and up to $200,000 if they have earned grants in the past. The maximum any company can receive through the program is $400,000, Cahoon noted.
Among the companies that have benefited from the grant program is a local firm that uses recycled plastics to make petroleum products. Known formerly as PK Clean, the company is now named Renewlogy and has a mission to reduce plastic waste by converting landfill-bound plastics into high-value fuels.
The company’s proprietary chemical recycling process reverts plastic back into its basic molecular structure, allowing non-recycled plastic waste to be converted into products such as diesel fuel.
Less than 10 percent of plastic waste is recycled in the U.S., explained Renewlogy founder and chief executive officer Priyanka Bakaya, and the company provides a solution for the remainder. Originally founded at MIT in 2011, the company moved to Utah to work on a research and development contract with the University of Utah, she said.
“We were at that inflection point, where we still needed a bit more cash before generating sales,” Bakaya said. “(The grants) helped us bridge that gap. It was really important for us at that time in our development.”
She said the company was able to secure their first sale and have been able to parlay that financial assistance into a burgeoning business that today generates millions in revenue.
Since then, the fact that they participated in the program has also helped raise their profile with potential customers, she said.
“It has helped in terms of credibility with governments, both domestic and abroad,” she explained. “They like to see that the state of Utah has supported us.”
Bakaya also noted that Renewlogy has plans to expand its operation to Nova Scotia, thanks in part to the assistance received through the commercialization program. For companies considering applying to the program, she said it was definitely a valuable resource.
“It’s definitely worth (it), especially if you’re in a field where the development takes a little bit longer,” Bakaya said. “It’s immensely helpful to companies like us and other industries.”
Renewlogy’s success fits into the state’s game plan for the Technology Commercialization and Innovation Program.
The program is designed to assist companies to acquire funding at critical points in their commercialization life cycles, Cahoon said, with the goal of achieving long-term success and boosting overall economic development in the state.
The application period started on Oct. 27 and runs through Nov. 20. Last year, the program awarded grants to 20 companies out of more than 180 applicants. This year, the fund is expected to issue about 25 grants, Cahoon said, with approximately 200 applications anticipated.