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  6.  | Alaska Small Business Development Center Leverages $3M in Federal Grants

Alaska Small Business Development Center Leverages $3M in Federal Grants

by | Jun 11, 2024 | Alaska Native, Featured, Government, Healthcare, News, Small Business

Tirachard | Envato

Grants from the US Small Business Administration (SBA) will fund two new programs in Alaska, both through the Alaska Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Over the next three years, these grants will provide a total of $1 million for the Alaska Native Entrepreneurship program and $2 million for the Alaska Healthcare Innovation program.

Increased Funding for Rural Communities

Over the past two years, the Alaska SBDC has been developing a rural-focused business development program that aims to increase Alaska Native entrepreneurship and help Native-owned businesses secure funding.

According to Alaska SBDC State Director Jon Bittner, the $1 million grant allows the Alaska SBDC to conduct outreach, develop new artificial intelligence (AI) tools, and provide training programs to Native communities.

One program being funded is a “Train the Trainer” program, which builds local capacity for the Alaska SBDC’s Business Advisors program.

“For the last forty years, we’ve developed training regimens to help the business advisors that we hire learn how to take a business from anywhere—from a back-of-the-napkin idea to ready to exit—and give them a lot of training and tools to facilitate that,” says Bittner. “This program is going to be sort of a stripped down version, almost a ‘business adviser lite’ program, where we’re going to find organizations in rural and remote communities that are interested in doing business development; we’ll run them through a certification program and basically help create capacity in these communities that is there in perpetuity, that can help businesses on the ground and at a certain point—when it gets to a certain level of complexity— can then know when to pass it back to either us or one of the other business development programs across the state.”

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Bittner explains that another aspect of the Alaska Native Entrepreneurship program is increasing the use of AI technology to develop tools that the Alaska SBDC can deploy in rural communities.

“In rural communities where we’ve got internet just getting out to some of these communities for the first time ever, the digital literacy issue has always been a problem,” he says. “But in this case, if we craft the tools correctly, as long as you can hold a conversation, you can get access to a pretty highly sophisticated level of business assistance, provided there’s internet. We’re seeing a lot of accessibility here that wasn’t there before.”

The Alaska SBDC currently operates in more than 100 Alaska communities, and Bittner says it plans to reach about 20 communities a year in person.

Healthcare Innovation Track

Although Alaska SBDC works with a lot of small businesses in the healthcare sector, the $2 million grant focuses on healthcare innovation for the first time.

“It’s a pilot program,” says Bittner. “We’re not really sure how much of this is realistic or not, but we’re going to really throw some resources at it and bring together a coalition of healthcare providers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and foreign market specialists, and really see what we can accomplish.”

According to Bittner, there is a lot of opportunity for innovation and increased efficiency in Alaska healthcare. He explains that trying to get good access to healthcare, particularly in rural and remote communities, has always been an issue in Alaska, but because of these challenges, Alaska has often been at the forefront of a lot of technological innovations, such as telemedicine.

“When we looked at the healthcare-specific issues that we had in Alaska, particularly in rural communities, they were very similar to the types of healthcare problems you saw in emerging economies outside of America,” says Bittner. “If we can sort of spur innovation in this sector in Alaska, we can improve our own access to healthcare, but also create a product, potentially, that has a global marketplace. And so that’s what we’re trying to really focus on here.”

Similar to the Alaska Native Entrepreneurship program, a main focus of the Alaska Healthcare Innovation program is the integration of AI technologies.

“We just had an AI conference earlier this year, and one of the keynote speakers was someone who is using AI-based technology to provide substance abuse counseling and resources to people remotely. So things along those lines, I think, dovetail very nicely with the needs that Alaskans have in terms of healthcare and accessibility,” says Bittner.

The Alaska SBDC is working with the UA System, including the UAA healthcare department. The Alaska SBDC also plans to partner with innovation-focused healthcare programs like Health TIE, along with larger providers in the state such as Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Regional Hospital, and Alaska Native Medical Center.

Bittner hopes Alaska can position itself as a global leader in the healthcare innovation space, and he is grateful for the support of Senator Lisa Murkowski and her team in securing this funding.

“They really went to bat for us in Congress and managed to get these programs in, largely because they believe in the value here, and we really appreciate that support.”

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Best of Alaska Business 2024
July 2024
Welcome to the 2024 Best of Alaska Business special section! For the ninth time we invited our readers to tell us which Alaska businesses they love the most, this year in forty-four categories. Throughout the month of March, you told us who should be featured in these pages, and we're thrilled to be able to publish the results.
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