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Qubitekk, a quantum telecommunications firm in Vista, conducts tests at Argonne National Laboratory. Courtesy photo
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Federal grants for next-gen tech firms prevalent in San Diego County

REGION — North County small businesses have received federal grants to commercialize myriad technologies, contributing to San Diego County receiving the second most such grants nationwide.

The grants act as seed money, helping small firms compete against industrial giants, said Louis Haerle of Seacoast Science in Carlsbad. Unlike private venture capital investors, Haerle said, Uncle Sam doesn’t take an equity stake or commercial rights for the product or service developed.

Haerle’s company, which manufactures chemical sensors, used one such grant for research to help the Army detect drug labs in South and Central America. From that, the company developed a miniature gas chromatograph, about the size of a shoebox, which it sells mostly to college chemistry departments, he said.

Various federal agencies award grants for commercial projects like these, on a competitive basis, through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.

Agencies awarding the most grants include the Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy. Numerous other agencies participate on a smaller scale.

The Social Express, a small Encinitas tech firm, used a federal grant to commercialize an interactive video game for teens to explore different career paths. Photo by Jared Zimmerman

Since 2017, 290 San Diego County small businesses have won SBIR or STTR awards — tied with Los Angeles County, behind only Middlesex County, Massachusetts, home to MIT and Harvard.

In North County specifically, 54 firms have received awards. Seacoast Science in Carlsbad and Parabilis Space Technologies in San Marcos have won the most, with 12 each.

In addition to its work with the Army, Seacoast Science has also received grants from the National Institute of Health, EPA and NASA, Haerle said.

Parabilis develops and tests rocket propulsion systems and small satellites.

The Social Express in Encinitas won grants to develop Teen Career Path, “the first educational video game for career exploration,” CEO Marc Zimmerman said.

Parabilis Space Technologies
Parabilis Space Technologies in San Marcos successfully completed testing of a 3D-printed Reaction Control System Thruster at its Lakeside Test Facility. The company is one of more than 50 businesses in North County to receive federal grant awards. Photo courtesy of Parabilis Space Technology

By playing an avatar in animated workplace scenarios, “students spend the day in the life of 23 different careers covering 15 job sectors,” he said. “Instead of a written assessment, we decided to build something that would be more exciting and scalable.”

Over 50 school districts so far have purchased the program, he said.

eSAT Global in Solana Beach won a grant to develop software-defined radios, which users can adapt for different purposes by reconfiguring software rather than hardware.

The company sells its equipment primarily for livestock tracking, Chief Technology Officer Michael Parr said.

Qubitekk in Vista has won several awards to develop quantum telecommunications equipment. The firm’s tech uses quantum entanglement, a subatomic physics phenomenon, to secure transmissions against snooping.

Two projects underway would harden communications between satellites in space and between drones and ground controllers, Vice President of Business Development Corey McClelland said. Financial institutions and utilities have also shown interest in the technology, he said.

Cyclopure, with its corporate office in Encinitas, received awards in 2017, 2018 and 2021 to develop residential water purification technology. Its DEXSORB system aims to remove micropollutants — such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, chemicals used in various consumer products — from drinking water.

“When PFAS are detected in community water, water sources are typically closed down and households are provided with bottled water,” CEO Frank Cassou said. “We plan to launch our first implementation of DEXSORB for home use in a gravity pitcher filter in June.”

Nanotools Bioscience, registered in Encinitas with labs now in La Jolla, has grants to develop uses for graphene, a super thin and strong carbon material.

“We are working on practical implementations of optoelectronic (aka, photovoltaic) properties of graphene … for biomedical applications, including optical cardiac pacemakers and accelerating maturation of stem-cell-derived cells,” CEO Alex Savtchenko said.