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The development out of Karl Ricanek’s lab was a shoo-in for government use. Facial recognition software–particularly that which can identify faces that have changed with age–would have myriad applications in intelligence and security, which Ricanek realized more than a decade ago with his Face Aging Group at UNCW.

He has contracts with the FBI and CIA currently, making him an easy example of local innovation connecting with government.

That topic themed a talk at the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) on Tuesday that specifically honed in on local business opportunities with the military.

T.A. "Mickey" Finn of the N.C. Military Business Center said his agencies is a portal for military and local business to connect. Photo by Ben Brown.
T.A. “Mickey” Finn of the N.C. Military Business Center said his agency is a portal for military and local business to connect. Photo by Ben Brown.

“If you think you’ve got a really cool idea, we want to know about it,” assured T.A. “Mickey” Finn, strategic program consultant with the N.C. Military Business Center, an initiative of the state community college system that leverages federal opportunities.

Ricanek, who directs the UNCW Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Identity Sciences and whose facial recognition software first connected with the NSA, was quick to note the current gulf between federal funds and North Carolina’s entrepreneurs. He and a crowd at CIE on Tuesday learned that while this state has the third largest active duty military presence in the U.S., it ranked just 31st in the number of proposals per capita for first-stage contracts between the Department of Defense and innovative small businesses in 2009-11.

“That was a wake-up call,” Ricanek said.

And it’s big money. The federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, for one, seeks to boost the connection between hot local companies and federally funded research and development. Federal agencies distribute more than $2 billion in SBIR and related Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants annually, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The idea of those programs is to stimulate tech innovation, and in SBIR there are 11 federal agencies that are required to make that local business connection. Federal agencies with “extramural” research and development budgets exceeding $100 million–like at the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, respectively–must allocate 2.8 percent of it to domestic small businesses that can commercialize their tech ideas to the high government’s benefit.

That 2.8 percent from the Army’s budget alone this year comes out to about $160 million, said Brad Guay, of the U.S. Army Research Office, to the crowd of business and idea people at CIE Tuesday.

“I feel like there’s some opportunity here for you guys to polish up,” he said.

Recent story: Optimism expressed for local innovation economy

Guay manages his office’s STTR program, which requires federal agencies with extramural research and development budgets exceeding $1 billion to set aside 0.35 percent for small businesses–specifically those partnered with research institutions, like UNCW.

He said the Army has about $23 million a year in STTR funds for which businesses can compete.

And the innovation focus ranges from technologies-of-now to those we’re essentially dreaming about, he continued, noting the Army Research Office and its role to invest in “game changers.”

“You see an octopus on the bottom of the sea floor camouflage itself on every piece of vegetation that it goes to, and it’s changing all the time,” he posed. “We want to know how that’s done.”

Finn of the N.C. Military Business Center said local innovations, inventions, products and services don’t necessarily have to have any apparent connection to military operations to be considered by federal purchasers.

“We don’t care what you developed it for,” he said Tuesday. “The military … don’t care either. They want to see if it’s something they can use. They buy everything that is legal.”

Future growth areas in federal contracts include biomedical and biotechnology products, human and behavioral sciences and advanced materials (bullet-proof, for instance), according to a fact sheet from Finn’s agency.

“We understand it’s kind of a niche topic,” said CIE Executive Director Jim Roberts, “but it’s a big opportunity for you guys if you take advantage.”

Click here for more information about SBIR and STTR opportunities.

Click here for more about the Military Business Center’s free services.

That agency, which is funded by the N.C. General Assembly, also operates a portal called Match Force, which matches North Carolina businesses to government contracts.

Past story: Federal government wants to extend more contract opportunities to small business


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Ben Brown is a news reporter at Port City Daily. Reach him at or (910) 772-6335. On Twitter: @benbrownmedia