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Key Idea: Win A SBIR Grant

Space exploration is accomplished through the efforts of our government, some big businesses and many small businesses like AZTech.  More...

Key Question:


Don Wilkes got started with a Small Business Innovative Research grant from the federal government.

The founder of AZ Technology, Don, had a vision of the instruments he wanted to build, the way he wanted to build them, and the conviction that he could only turn his vision into reality if he owned his own company.

Small business owners leave the comfort of employment and the guaranteed paycheck for a variety of different reasons but Don's motivation is probably among the most common. He had a clear idea of the instruments he wanted to manufacture, how they should be designed, coated, tested in space simulation chambers, etc. This was in his head. He needed the freedom of his own business to translate what was in his head to reality.

Freedom to do what you want to do in the manner you think it should be done is the primary motivator for most small business owners. Many, like Don, have very good ideas that they are able to develop into very good realities in a business environment they are able to create.

Q: Why did you start your own business? How have you turned your dreams into reality?

A: Think back to the day you decided to "take the plunge." Have you accomplished what you set out to accomplish? Have you moved toward your vision, your dream? Sometimes business owners get so involved in the day-to-day dealings with customers, employees, and vendors, they don't take the time to reflect, to think strategically, about the business and its direction. At least once a quarter, give yourself the luxury of that reflection, if only for a few minutes.

How do you communicate why you started your business to your employees, customers, and vendors?

A: Formalize your thoughts with written vision and mission statements.

Your vision is where you are going and what you see when you arrive. Your mission is what you do every day.

We learned from James Collins research, published in his book Built to Last, that most successful companies never change their vision but changing their mission is relatively common place. Missions change in response to changing economic times, advances in technology, and with the evolution of new markets.

Here's a good process for writing your statements:

  • Draft each yourself, capture the content of your vision and mission but don't worry about the wordsmithing.
  • Meet with your employees, review the content, and facilitate a discussion about the statements and whether they clearly communicate the vision and mission of the company.
  • Select a small number of people to wordsmith the statements and return to the group for final approval.

Once you have the statements, display them prominently in your sales collateral, offices, new hire orientation materials, etc. Some companies have even printed their vision and/or mission statements on their business cards. However you decide to proceed, the important thing is that all your stakeholders have a clear understanding of your dream when you founded your business and the path you are taking to realize that dream.

Think about it

Do you have an idea that deserves an SBIR grant?  Do you have an idea that deserves investment?  Have you put the idea in writing?  Have you built a prototype?  What need would your idea fill?  Who would use your idea?  Who would pay you money for it?

Clip from: AZ Technology

Huntsville, Alabama:   Come to the Marshall Space Flight Center where small business is playing an ever-greater role in commercializing what was once top secret research and the domain of big business.

In this episode of the show we meet Don Wilkes, a scientist who started a business to build machines that no one else would. The year was 1989 when he started the business of his dreams, AZ Technology.

Don was quick to capitalize on a program that leverages our government's basic research to develop commercial products. It is called Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the program is administered by ten federal agencies.

These agencies annually grant over $3 billion to small businesses, mostly through the Department of Defense and NASA.

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AZ Technology

Lynn Leeper, CEO

7047 Old Mansion Pike
Suite 300
Huntsville, AL 35806

Visit our web site:

Office: 256-937-9877

Business Classification:

Year Founded: 1989

Win A SBIR Grant

HATTIE: Hi. I'm Hattie Bryant and this is SMALL BUSINESS SCHOOL. As we do every week, we will take you inside a small business to meet the founder and you'll learn how business works from the inside out.

Don Wilkes sees possibilities where others say, `That's impossible.' He's a small-business owner whose customer is the federal government. Because of the federal government's Small Business Innovative Research Program, Don is building machines he only could dream just a few years ago.

(Voiceover) Let's go to Huntsville, Alabama, where the American space program started and where it still relies on entrepreneurs. 2001: The real space odyssey has already begun and small business is in the center of it. Rockets, heavy metal, power, space, the unknown--all of this looks like big government and big business, but many small-business owners have been and are still involved in every aspect of the space program and dozens of other government efforts. In Huntsville, Alabama, at the Marshall Space Flight Center, the mock International Space Station is where visitors can learn about this world-class orbiting laboratory, enabling scientific research that cannot be performed on Earth.

Astronaut Dr. LARRY DeLUCAS: All right. This has turned out to be a pretty good day.

HATTIE: (Voiceover) Former astronaut and now professor of optometry and director of X-ray crystallography at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Dr. Larry DeLucas shows me around. OK. So what is USML? What does that say?

LARRY: United States Microgravity Lab 1. It was the first mission dedicated to commercial experiments, things that we felt like had potential if we could develop the technology to lead to small business innovation.

Unlike several other countries, the United States has realized, our Congress has realized, the importance of the commercial sector. But they also realize that fundamental research needs a jump start before companies get involved. And they know that that'll lead to jobs, it'll lead to a lot of cures in medicine. And so, therefore, they fund this research through small grants to small companies.

You know, often the small companies have the really innovative ideas.

The company writes a proposal, a Small Business Innovative Research proposal. They write that to NASA and say, `We have licensed some fundamental research from the university'--and that's what happened in our case--`and now we're going to take that research and we're going to make this product.'

DON WILKES: I guess I had a vision of the instruments that I wanted to build, that I'd wanted to build for a long time, and the only way to do it was to go out on my own to do that.

HATTIE: (Voiceover) Don Wilkes, founder of AZ Technology, is just one of many small-business owners who does work for the Marshall Flight Center. Unidentified Woman: We've also finished up the...

With 37 employees, AZ Technology works on projects such as the Space Portable Spectroreflectometer, which recently returned from the Mir Space Station...

Unidentified Cosmonaut: (Russian spoken). (Voiceover) ...remote teleoperations, aerospace coatings and materials processing, and optical properties instrumentation. So what is this we're sitting in front of?

DON: This is a space simulation chamber. We can't take everything to space to test. We have to test a number of things on the ground. And so this chamber is built to test materials that will fly in space.

Unidentified Astronaut #2: Make sure after all the clamps are closed...

DON: (Voiceover) We're trying to expose them to the vacuum of space, to the solar radiation from space and to measure how these change. The space environment is a very harsh environment for the materials to operate in, and now we're talking about them being out there for 10 years and longer. And it's a very difficult problem to overcome. Coatings for use on materials in space -- a parallel of that is like your house paint. The best house paint on the ground wouldn't last a week in space without turning dark brown.

So it's a very harsh environment. The materials that are used out there have to be designed specially for use in that environment, and we have to test those. And this is an example of the extremes you have to go to, to test these materials on the ground.

For the SBIRs, the government agency like NASA will publish a list of requirements that they have, because you're really trying to match up your idea with their requirements and a commercial need. So they publish a list yearly of these topics of requirements.

(Voiceover) And they're somewhat general at times, and you look for a way to match your idea up with their needs, and that's what we did. One of the first ones we got was the Space Portable Spectroreflectometer instrument, to go measure the surfaces of spacecraft. (Voiceover) These external surfaces on spacecraft are very important. If the material changed too much, you can no longer maintain the spacecraft at a comfortable temperature for people and electronics.

Unidentified Astronaut #3: I'm just going to go up and set up the pads and...

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