NIST Awards Millions in Innovation Funds for Projects on AI, Wildfire Forecasting—and Much More

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Here are a few projects that received a financial boost through the Small Business Innovation Research program.

A wildfire forecast system that taps high performance computing assets to detect and predict the spread of every fire across the U.S. in real-time, an advanced optical imaging system to see the deformation of materials at levels invisible to the human eye, and a handheld Cholera pathogen detection device: These are all among a range of solutions the National Institute of Standards and Technology announced it’s dishing out money to, in a deliberate move to drive innovation.

The agency on Thursday unveiled research and development projects from 19 small businesses across 12 states, which it’s awarding a total of more than $4.4 million in grants to in the fiscal year’s round of the NIST Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR program.

“Like previous SBIR participants, this year’s awardees have found ways to positively impact lives through technological innovation and advancement,” Mojdeh Bahar, NIST’s associate director for innovation and industry services said in the announcement.

NIST is one of 11 federal agencies that put aside a portion of their yearly R&D budgets to help fund relevant science and technology pursuits steered by small businesses. The SBIR program took shape in 1982 following the passage of the Small Business Innovation Development Act, expanded in 1992 and went on to garner subsequent reauthorization and extensions. The most recent of those extended the program through 2022. 

“[SBIR] supports scientific research and development leading to technological innovation and product commercialization by American small businesses,” Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology Walter Copan noted in NIST’s statement.

Potential partners were instructed to respond to solicitations for phases I or II of the program earlier this year. Phase I awardees can gain up to $100,000 to “establish the merit, feasibility and commercial potential” of their proposed R&D projects, and after completing that initial phase, they can vie for another round of funding of up to $400,000 to further advance their work. 

The standards-focused agency noted in the 2020 phase I SBIR solicitation that the “program identifies and solicits applications in topics that fall within NIST’s mission and allow collaboration between NIST scientists and the SBIR awardees whenever possible,” indicating that those selected fully align with its key priorities.

In its release, the agency briefly highlighted all the winners, though more details of their innovations were also published by NIST’s Technology Partnerships Office.

Efforts selected for both phases of funding cross many emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, topography mapping, advanced manufacturing software tools—and more. 

Among phase I awardees is Awayr Inc., a business tapped to validate NIST’s recently released Phish scale to help humans curb cyber and phishing-based attacks, on top of other aims. California-based Reax Engineering Inc. was also chosen by the agency to create a wildfire-predicting tool, through which NIST said subscribers will “be able to initiate a fire spread forecast by clicking a location on the web map and specifying an ignition time; the resultant forecast will then also be visible to others, enabling coordination among first responders and other agencies.”

And included in phase II projects is a weighty effort, led by OmniVis LLC, to build on previous work and ultimately, design and commercialize “a user-friendly and fully integrated device for sample-to-answer environmental” detection of a bacteria that causes Cholera.

“Cholera affects communities across 41 countries, including in Yemen, where in the first 5 months of 2020 has had 110,000 suspected cases,” NIST noted. 

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