MANCHESTER, N.H. - A program that helps small businesses compete for research and development grants is paying off in New Hampshire, but more should be done to further encourage innovation, high-tech entrepreneurs told the state's two U.S. senators Monday.
U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte held a Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee field hearing in Manchester attended by business leaders, representatives from several federal agencies, a venture capital firm and the state's community college system.
Participants praised the Small Business Innovation Research program, which helps companies pursue research and development activity with the potential for commercialization, but said it could be improved. Some called for more uniformity across federal agencies during the application process, while others said it's important that agencies have more flexibility in working with companies.
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., left and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. meet with area business leaders Monday, in Manchester, N.H.
"When you start working with a new agency you haven't worked with before, you have to almost start all over again," said Jason Bundas of QmagiQ, which makes advanced infrared imaging sensors.
Jake Reder of Celdara Medical said uniformity across agencies makes sense from an administrative standpoint, but he also argued for flexibility within each agency once a company is further along in the process.
"Every sector is different. It costs different amounts of money to do different types of science, so putting a one-size-fits-all rule on top of all the agencies is nonsensical," he said.
Beyond that program, participants said more should be done to attract venture capital to the state, and they emphasized the need for the education system to prepare students for emerging industries.
"As the pace of innovation increases, education becomes out of touch," said Gray Chynoweth of Dyn Inc., who also said allowing more highly-skilled foreign workers to remain in the United States is critical to keeping U.S. businesses competitive. He described a foreign worker whose 10 months at his company resulted in $5 million a year in revenue.
"If we aren't bringing these people to this country, they're going to go elsewhere," he said.
Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, said small businesses can't innovate or compete without a skilled workforce. That includes "middle skill" workers - those who have more than a high school degree but less than a bachelor's degree.
Community colleges are focused on training those workers, he said.
Shaheen and Ayotte held a similar hearing in 2011 before the small business innovation program was reauthorized. Overall, New Hampshire companies have won more than 1,600 awards worth $442 million, they said.