NIH builds online commerce mall

The National Institutes of Health is creating a virtual library to give large and small companies an edge in doing business both inside and outside government.

Called e-Portals in Commerce, or e-PIC, the Web site is the brainchild of Diana Mukitarian, the director of the NIH Small Business Office, whose mandate is to help small, disadvantaged, and woman- and veteran-owned businesses garner a larger share of government contracts.

"We want to reach "moms and pops' out there," Mukitarian said during an interview in her Rockville, Md., office. "It's a way for them to have a place with us now. And by having a global source system, that will increase opportunities for their visibility as well."

The idea is a simple one: Create a portal, let small and large businesses register for a listing and include links to their companies and keywords to identify what they sell — and do it for free.

Once registered, agencies can identify small and disadvantaged businesses that sell the products they need. Or, companies looking to bid on government contracts can find woman-owned businesses for partnership opportunities.

"It certainly is in line with e-government initiatives to collect and maintain information about sources of supply. For firms, it serves as a gateway and marketing tool," Mukitarian said.

At NIH, the site will help 29,000 people more quickly find a contractor for what they want to buy. It also makes available a place where NIH contractors that provide products ranging from fertilizer for e agency's grounds to gas for its cars can advertise their wares.

E-PIC (epic.od.nih.gov), which was developed by Advanced Software Systems Inc., a small, minority-owned business in McLean, Va., has had 4,500 visitors since it was launched on Oct. 1.

The portal represents a giant step forward for the small-business office, Mukitarian said. In the past, thousands of businesses regularly sent advertisements to the office but rarely made headway in a world swamped with paper. The information was stored in large file cabinets but rarely reviewed.

This information is now available online for NIH employees and for anyone else who wants to take advantage of it.

Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, called the portal a valuable tool. "This is an online version of what you used to have to look up. It is a benefit to small businesses that do business with NIH. It is a good use of NIH business," said Allen, whose association represents 350 large and small businesses that work with the federal government.

To facilitate easier contracting, e-PIC uses new codes mandated by the North American Free Trade Agreement to identify products under the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) and is one of the first Web sites to do so. A business simply inputs its old code for its commodities, and the old code is transposed to the NAICS code.

The site also verifies if a business qualifies as a small business or a minority-owned operation, making it even faster and easier for a government agency or prime contractor to find the right kind of business for a partnership.

Under the Small Business Act, 23 percent of prime contracts must be available for small businesses, and other percentages must be set aside for disadvantaged or woman-owned businesses. Without a computerized guide, it may be impossible for a large business to quickly find the right match. But e-PIC might be just the right tool.

But now, large companies will be able to position themselves more competitively to get business contracts with NIH, other government agencies or the private sector.

"We were slow to begin, but we've seized the e-government initiative. We're not only able to deliver services, but we do it 24 hours a day," Mukitarian said.

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