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A lonely pump jack sits along a rural county road near the Ferris Mountains in Natrona County in 2020. Photo by Carrie Haderlie

Two programs at the Wyoming Small Business Development Center Network are poised to offer Wyoming entrepreneurs support this fall.

The first, a Portable Assistance Grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, can be used to provide technical and advising assistance to Wyoming small businesses affected by the economic downturn in the energy industry. Portable Assistance Grants are used to target negative economic events in specific business segments or geographical areas.

The second is a $125,000 grant that can be used to provide specialized training, mentoring and technical assistance for research and development-focused small businesses. The U.S. Small Business Administration’s Federal and State Technology, or FAST, grant seeks to improve outcomes in the small business innovation research and small business technology transfer programs for underserved communities by increasing participation from rural, women-owned and socially or economically disadvantaged small businesses.

“We do get state and federal funding, and we operate many programs, working with individual and budding entrepreneurs or existing businesses,” Wyoming SBDC Network State Director Jill Kline said.

Kline said any small business that has been negatively affected by economic factors in the energy industry, as well as displaced energy workers interested in learning about small business ownership, can use Portable Assistance Grant funding for business advising and training opportunities.

“Although the grant is modest and does not provide direct financial assistance to small businesses, it does allow us to increase training and advising opportunities for businesses and workers affected by the downturn in the energy industry,” Kline said. “The focus of our grant activities is to help negatively affected businesses strengthen their operations or pivot into other areas. We would also love to work with displaced workers interested in applying their skills as small business owners. The ultimate goal is to contribute to a stronger, more diversified Wyoming economy.”

This is the eighth year in a row that the Wyoming SBDC Network has received the highly competitive FAST grant, different from the Portable Assistance Grant, in that it is related to technological development and innovation. Only 32 other FAST grants were awarded this year.

“The FAST award allows the Wyoming SBDC Network to provide specialized training, education and guidance that technology development companies otherwise may not have access to,” Kline said. “This grant creates an even more robust set of services that support these high-tech innovations.”

Last year, similar programming through the Wyoming SBDC Network helped entrepreneurs secure more than $3.6 million in government funding to help them and small business owners research, develop and commercialize their innovations. Entrepreneurs can also apply for a $5,000 contract, which UW funds through a grant from the Wyoming Business Council, to get started.

“We have people who may want to ask, ‘Do I have a viable idea for a business?’ Or want to ask, ‘I’ve started this business, and I just need some advice’,” Kline said. “We are also here for those existing businesses who say, ‘I’m having great sales, and I need to expand, but can I afford to hire someone to help me?’”

The FAST grant program isn’t really COVID-related at all, and is one that has been awarded in Wyoming for many years. It has changed during the pandemic in that the funding may not be used as often for travel, although it can be used for travel, if applicable.

“The program is really targeting innovative solutions, or companies that have a novel product or idea that needs research and development to bring it to a commercialized state,” Kline said. “For the most part, Wyoming entrepreneurs do respond well to the call. … We have had everything from, ‘I have an idea for a new flavor of barbecue sauce,’ which, that may be innovative, but it is not the target we are looking for, to someone doing robotics stuff, which is more in line with what we are trying to do.”

Kline said the Small Business Development Center hopes to support Wyoming-based companies in whatever they are doing, and especially in innovations that can create jobs.

“If an idea can be brought to a commercialized product, whatever the innovation might be, that could grow a business in Wyoming and provide high-paying jobs. That is the ultimate goal, but it is a very slow process,” Kline said.

The Portable Assistance Grant funding was created specifically to support businesses affected by the economic downturn in the energy industry.

“That could mean displaced workers, or if businesses are trying to pivot, we have funding for technical assistance, market research, to help those businesses or individuals,” Kline said. “If they have been laid off, not necessarily because of COVID, but the economic downturn, or if they want to take their skills and try to start a business, we can help them determine if it is a viable path. We can help them make that decision through factual information.”

Even if a business does not fit into either grant category, Kline said the Small Business Development Center wants to work with anyone.

“We serve businesses, no matter where they stand or what they are doing. There is probably something we can help with, even if it is advising or next steps,” Kline said. “Two heads are better than one, in a nutshell. Wyoming folks are independent. Sometimes they find it difficult to ask for help, but they shouldn’t. That is what we are here for, so that we can support small businesses and entrepreneurs, because we know small business is the backbone of our economy nationwide.”

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