OU-Led OK Catalyst Programs, Partner Institutions Receive SBA Grant to Support Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurs from Underserved

The Oklahoma Catalyst Programs (OK Catalyst), part of the University of Oklahoma’s Tom Love Innovation Hub, and five partner universities, received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration to launch the Hub of the Heartland program.

The SBA grant, one of only eight nationwide, was awarded through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR/STTR) Catalyst competition – part of a two-track, $5.4 million initiative from the SBA to generate investment in underserved communities within the innovation ecosystem.

The Hub of the Heartland is a one-year pilot to expand OK Catalyst’s award-winning programs for startup support in Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri while also creating a regional network of key experts and resources to launch dozens of startups across the region.

OK Catalyst is leading this collaborative partnership between OU and teams at the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, Wichita State University, the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Startup Junkie/University of Arkansas – leveraging the unique resources at each institution to create regional channels and centers of excellence.

“The Hub of the Heartland will bolster the ability of the heartland to secure SBIR/STTR funding and connect startups to the expertise needed to scale their ventures,” said Tom Wavering, executive director of the Tom Love Innovation Hub. “This regional partnership will better connect entrepreneurial resources across the heartland to nurture a regional innovation ecosystem while strengthening a diverse community of innovators.”

Studies have shown that underrepresented entrepreneurs face unique challenges, and the SBIR Catalyst grants are designed to help address these disparities. In 2020, the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that conducts entrepreneurial research and is located in the Hub of the Heartland region, surveyed entrepreneurs in the heartland to identify the challenges with starting ventures. The survey found that 40% faced geographical barriers, 44% faced network barriers and 47% faced knowledge barriers.

Through ongoing analysis of the heartland ecosystem and SBIR/STTR performance through the Kauffman Foundation, led by Wichita State University, and supporting analysis by Heartland Forward, heartland ecosystem leaders have identified a major need for access to SBIR/STTR-focused accelerator programs, as well as establishing stronger networks of grant writers, reviewers, mentors, partners and other key resources across the region. The Hub of the Heartland was proposed by this partnership of heartland ecosystem leaders to help address these issues.

This is the SBA’s first year to grant the SBIR Catalyst awards.

“This year’s cohort of winners emphasizes our commitment to equity. Our awardees have innovative plans to support underserved entrepreneurs, including women, people of color and individuals from underrepresented geographic areas,” said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman. “The success of the first-ever SBIR Catalyst track will ensure newly piloted regional collaboratives represent the diverse potential of the U.S. innovation ecosystem.”

Competitors were required to submit a presentation deck and a 90-second video to describe their overall plan for an award, including their work with targeted entrepreneur groups, experience with STEM/R&D and implementation plans for the prize funds. Applications were judged by panels of experts from the private and public sector with experience in early-stage investment, entrepreneurship, academic, startups and economic development.

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