National Science Foundation official woos Chattanooga startups

National Science Foundation official woos Chattanooga startups

June 10th, 2017 by Mike Pare in Business Diary

Platt Boyd, right, founder and CEO of Branch Technology, talks with Cam Doody during the Spirit of Innovation Awards luncheon and expo Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016 at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

A National Science Foundation official met with Chattanooga entrepreneurs on Friday to talk about grants to help jump-start their companies, but he also bemoaned a proposed cut in his agency's budget.

Dr. Rajesh Mehta, an NSF program director, was visiting with a couple of Chattanooga companies, Branch Technology and Coulometrics, which have already received funding from the federal agency.

"I'd like to get (other) entrepreneurial start-ups to know about our program," he said during a visit to Chattanooga's INCubator. "We fund companies to take research to the marketplace."

Mehta said NSF typically funds about 400 start-ups annually. While Chattanooga has a robust startup community, the grants can help stimulate even more startup ventures.

"We want this kind of innovation and entrepreneurism as a way to strengthen the economy — to create new jobs," he said.

But, Mehta said, a proposed 11 percent cut in the NSF budget in President Donald Trump's recent 2018 budget request is a concern.

"We think we're spending that [small business] money very wisely," he said. "If that money is reduced, we'll be able to help fewer people."

Ed Buiel, chief executive for Coulometrics, said his company received $850,000 in NSF money, which helped it develop graphite that is used in lithium ion batteries in electric vehicles.

Buiel said Coulometrics recently formed a joint venture with an Australian company. He said the taxes paid on the money it received from the sale of the technology to that venture enabled the government to recover its investment in Coulometrics.

"Every year after this, it's going to be a bonus for the government," Buiel said.

Buiel said that almost 100 percent of the graphite used in lithium ion batteries currently comes from China.

"We're going to produce it all in the U.S. for electric vehicle production," he said. "We couldn't have done it without the NSF."

But the NSF, which dispenses grants to a variety of scientific research endeavors, would be trimmed $776 million under the budget plan prepared by the Trump administration.

"The National Science Foundation last year used your taxpayer money to fund a climate change musical. Do you think that's a waste of your money?" asked Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, at a recent White House briefing.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.