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Self-driving cars. GPS. The internet. Infant formula. Google. Radiation-proof glass coating. Bar codes. Microchips and touch screens. The flu shot. Kevlar. Wind turbines.
What do all of these inventions have in common?
If you guessed that they’re technological breakthroughs that have shaped the course of human history and improved our lives, you’d be 100% right.
But that’s not all.
They’re also just a small selection of the inventions funded, at least in part, by the United States government.
From the computer you’re reading this on and the smartphone in your pocket to the car you drive, the medicine you take, and the energy you use to power it all, the federal government has played a part in making the technologies you use every day.
And the kicker?
Many of these inventions came, not from big labs or colossal companies, but from small businesses financed by the Small Business Administration. More specifically, the SBA’s Office of Investment and Innovation runs the SBIR program that attracts, assists, and funds thousands of small businesses each year.
To learn more about the SBIR program, we sat down with Matthew Weinberg, Special Advisor to the Office of Investment and Innovation.
If your small business focuses on developing scientific or technological breakthroughs, we’ll tell you exactly how to get the SBIR funds you need to change the world.
And if not, keep reading anyway! The government has lots of programs and grants to fund all sorts of small businesses across the country, and one might just be perfect for you.
First things first… What is the SBIR program?
The Small Business Innovation Research program is a large and competitive initiative run by the federal government with one basic motivation:
To encourage small businesses to invent.
According to Matthew Weinberg, the SBIR program represents the “crossroads of all paths of innovation,” showing the public sector represented and reflected in innovation and science. It’s a program that accomplishes the federal government’s global goals with the drive, intelligence, and imagination of American small business owners.
Encouraging scientific and technological development is all well and good, but it’s a bit too open-ended for a large program like the SBIR. The SBA actually has 4 fundamental goals that it aims to accomplish with the SBIR program, each a difficult but important mission.
Let’s take a closer look.
This goal ties into how the SBIR program works:
Different government agencies submit RFPs, or requests for proposal, to the SBA’s Office of Investment and Innovation. These requests detail the scientific or technological developments each agency needs—and small businesses on the right track for those developments can submit proposals in order to get SBIR funding.
Here’s a real-life example to clear things up:
In 1996, the National Science Foundation needed a way to search through the fast-growing World Wide Web, so they submitted a request for proposal to the public that encouraged entrepreneurs working on this problem to apply for funding. The Foundation gave funding to the Stanford Digital Library Project to “develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library.” Two Stanford Ph.D. students joined the Project for their dissertation and invented something that you probably use every day:
The government agency knew that it needed a smart way to search the internet, so it sent out a request—and when Stanford’s Digital Library Project submitted a proposal to solve the problem, they got funding to keep working.
While Google owes its origin to the National Science Foundation, not the SBIR, the process is the same: a government agency submits a request for technology it needs, and small businesses rise to the challenge.
(Fun fact: Google did acquire LiftLabs, an SBIR-funded company, in an attempt to grow their Life Science portfolio.)
Whether it’s the next Google, a life-saving vaccine, or a new energy-saving kind of windmill, the needs of government agencies get met through the SBIR program—and by innovative small businesses across the country.
Make no mistake:
The government doesn’t want innovation just to keep all these inventions to itself.
That’s why commercialization is important to the SBIR program. The Office of Investment and Innovation has to look closely at each proposal and ask:
Will this be useful to other people? Will it turn this business into a success, improve the economy, and serve an actual purpose for the general public?
If the answers to those questions are yes, then the SBIR program is satisfied. Its goal isn’t scientific progress for progress’s sake: the government wants these breakthroughs to make a real difference.
And, of course, to make some money.
After all, the SBIR program is funded by taxes—so it’s important that your tax dollars are going towards inventions that will end up benefitting you, even if indirectly.
Sure, it’s abstract—but it’s still one of the SBIR program’s major goals.
The fact of the matter is that the government cares a lot about our country’s innovation. For just one example, it’s been trying to raise the standards of math and science in schools to catch up with other countries around the world.
Encouraging small businesses to develop new technologies is another.
There are plenty of ways that people measure innovation across countries, and the U.S. leads the pack in many metrics. According to one study, the United States ranks third in the “Global Technology Index” (behind Finland and Japan), based on these three criteria:
1. The percentage of our economy that we devote to research and development.
We rank sixth, behind Israel, Sweden, Finland, Japan, and Switzerland.
Here’s an alternative graphic from Batelle and R&D Magazine, too:
2. Our scientific and engineering researchers per capita.
Here we follow Finland, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, and Denmark in sixth place.
3. Our patents per capita.
This is a pretty straightforward way to measure innovation: how many inventions do we come up with, proportional to our population? And the U.S. sits in first place (followed by Japan, Switzerland, Finland, and Israel).
So while the United States isn’t exactly in trouble, it’s always important for us to remain competitive by striving to be the best.
And the SBA’s SBIR program is one way to do just that. With the SBIR program alone, our federal government has dedicated roughly $41 billion over the past 34 years to scientific research and development, leading to the creation of around 70,000 patents and 700 public companies. Plus, nearly 450,000 scientists and engineers are involved with the program: one of the largest STEM concentrations in the entire world.
And with those success statistics, the SBIR program is clearly one of the most important ways to make sure the U.S. stays at the head of the global science and technology pack, always innovating and growing.
Finally, the SBIR program has dedicated itself to promoting these values of scientific development equally.
But what does that mean?
According to Weinberg, it means compensating for traditionally underserved communities—because areas with less luck, power, and privilege can absolutely contribute in huge ways to our country’s innovation.
“The government’s ultimate goal isn’t to make a profit,” he says. “It’s to make sure these resources are invested equitably. It’s not our belief that innovation should only occur in a few geographical areas and be relegated to white males.”
Silicon Valley, while important, simply isn’t enough.
Plenty of studies show that increased gender, socioeconomic, and racial diversity, for example, improve how businesses are run, the quality of scientific research, and the way legal cases are heard.
It’s an indisputable fact that diversity is good for our country’s bottom line—and the SBIR program recognizes how important it is to incorporate diversity into our scientific and technological developments.
And it’s had a fair amount of success: 23% of the SBIR program’s funding has gone to exclusively women-owned or minority-owned businesses, including EpiBone (founded by Nina Tandon) and Zyrobotics (by Ayana Howard). It’s not enough—around 30% of privately-held firms are owned by women, for example—but it’s a good start.
The SBIR program has a number of initiatives to help increase the diversity of its small business applicants, like working with universities and traveling on a tour bus around the country (yes, we’re serious), but we’ll take a closer look at these later on.
Now that we understand what the SBIR program is and why it matters, let’s take a step back for a moment: when did all this get started?
We don’t want to turn this into a boring old history lesson—but understanding how the SBIR program got started is a good way to better appreciate its broad goals.
So let’s start at the very beginning: with the Small Business Administration.
On July 30th, 1953, President Eisenhower signed the Small Business Administration into existence with the Small Business Act.
That act’s goal?
To “aid, counsel, assist and protect, insofar as is possible, the interests of small business concerns.” This included a disaster relief fund for small businesses, a database of small businesses and financial information, and—last but not least—a business loan and investment fund.
Although the SBA would occasionally have to fight for its existence in 1996 and again in 2004, it has continued to give back to our country’s community of small business owners in need of financing.
And with the Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, the Small Business Administration today has more power than ever to help our small businesses succeed.
Although the SBA’s Office of Investment and Innovation has been around since ‘53, the SBIR program didn’t officially begin until 1982.
Roland Tibbetts, Senior Program Officer at the National Science Foundation, first came up with the notion of a federally-funded, small business-oriented award to increase scientific and technological development in the United States. He piloted the program and, soon after, convinced others of its great potential.
This time it was Ronald Reagan who signed the Small Business Innovation Development Act that gave rise to the SBIR program. This act declared that:
“Technological innovation creates jobs, increases productivity, competition, and economic growth, and is a valuable counterforce to inflation and the United States balance-of-payments deficit; while small business is the principal source of significant innovations in the Nation, the vast majority of federally funded research and development is conducted by large businesses, universities, and Government laboratories; and small businesses are among the most cost-effective performers of research and development and are particularly capable of developing research and development results into new products.”
Whew… Alright, that’s a bit stuffy.
Basically, Congress decided to fund the SBIR program because:
To start with, the SBIR program would get at least 1.25% of the budget of any federal agency that had at least $100 million set aside for its own research and development programs.
In other words?
The federal agencies with big budgets had to set aside some cash to finance small business innovations.
This minimum was raised to 2.5% in 1997 and has steadily increased since, reaching 3% this year and set to be 3.2% by 2017.
(Psst—that’s a pretty big budget increase over the SBIR’s history. Know what that means? It’s successful.)
Today, the SBIR program operates across 11 federal agencies, including:
…For a total of $2.5 billion (and counting!) available for small business science and technology innovation. The Department of Defense alone accounts for $1 billion of those funds.
As mentioned, the SBIR program has distributed around $41 billion to small businesses across the country, and gives roughly 5,000 awards each year to its thousands of competing businesses. Plus, 11% of its awardees have attracted another $65 billion in additional venture capital. These “early-stage technology and research startups in need of seed capital” can find what they need, and then some, with the SBIR program.
Just a few of the SBIR program’s success stories: Qualcomm, Jawbone, Symantec, iRobot, and plenty more you might not be aware of—but that have definitely improved your life in a big way.
(Up-and-comers include 23 and Me, Ecovative Design, Mango Materials, HYdronalix, Made in Space, and more. Check them out now to get ahead of the curve.)
As Weinberg says, “It’s fundamentally astounding that the federal government—not private venture capital firms or banks—is the entity backing these moonshot investments that end up changing the world.”
And “moonshot,” by the way, comes from the government’s very own Apollo 11 space mission.
So all these statistics and anecdotes are fascinating, but how can you apply and get funding?
We’ll break down the application process for you, from RFP to Phase III and beyond. Then, we’ll take a look at how the SBIR program measures its own success from year to year.
Let’s get started.
First, let’s go over what kinds of businesses can apply for the SBIR program.
According to their guidelines, you have to “qualify as a Small Business Concern (SBC) as defined by SBA regulations at 13 C.F.R. §§ 701-705.”
Here’s what that actually means:
1. Your business is for-profit.
Plus, you must be located in the U.S., operate primarily in the U.S., or give back to the U.S. economy a good amount through taxes and purchases. Pretty simple.
2. You fit a certain kind of legal entity type.
Those types are: sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, corporation, joint venture, association, trust, or cooperative. (Learn more about business entity types here.)
3. Your business is at least 51% directly owned and controlled by…
Citizens or permanent resident aliens of the U.S., other small businesses that are themselves at least 51% owned by the same, or some combination of the two.
In other words, you’ve got to be mostly owned by citizens or permanent residents—either directly or indirectly.
(Here’s some information on your business’s ownership percentages and why they’re important.)
4. You’ve got 500 or fewer employees.
Finally, the SBIR program does allow businesses owned by venture capital firms, hedge funds, and private equity funds—as long as the majority of those owners themselves qualify as small business concerns.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at the actual application process for the SBIR program.
Don’t stress—you don’t have to do anything yet. This is the step before you get involved, when those requests for proposal come rolling out.
You might remember that we covered this way back with our example of Google, but we’ll review the process again here.
Here’s the deal:
When one of those 11 federal agencies realizes that it needs a scientific development or new piece of technology, it writes up an RFP—or a request for proposal.
These RFPs only last for a certain amount of months before expiring. They’ll include information on:
For example, the Department of Health and Human Services has an RFP out for laboratory and diagnostic tools to advance microbiome-brain research. The request details the challenges that microbiome-brain research usually faces and includes a list of potentially acceptable proposals, ranging from new diagnostic tools to monitoring systems, and more.
In short, an RFP will have all the information you need to understand who you’re applying to, when you’ll need to apply by, and what developments you’ll apply for.
The first step for you is finding the right request for proposal.
After all, your small business might be close to making a technological breakthrough or scientific discovery, but chances are high that it’s a pretty specific innovation. If the Department of Defense might give you funding, then the Department of Education probably wouldn’t.
Check the SBIR program’s RFP portal (make sure “SBIR” is selected in the filters on the left!) and narrow your search with relevant keywords or agencies. Check out the RFPs that seem plausible for your business and click the “official link for this solicitation” to see the full request.
Alternatively, you can go directly to each agency’s SBIR program page and peruse their specific requests. (Here’s NASA’s SBIR page, for example.)
Once you’ve found the RFP (or RFPs!) you want to apply for…
This step is pretty straightforward: gather all the materials indicated on the RFP and submit!
When writing your proposal, make sure to follow the guidelines outlined by the RFP you’re submitting to, whether that means page limits and margin sizes, cover sheets, possible budgets, or anything else.
In general, your proposal should describe your innovation, explain its relevance, demonstrate its importance, show that it’s plausible, and propose a strategy for development and commercialization. (On average, SBIR program proposals take 6 to 8 weeks to complete.)
That was a bit of a mouthful…
Basically, your proposal should cover what you’ll do, how you’ll do it, and why it matters.
Here are some additional documents or reference IDs you might need to attach:
And pay attention to the format of your proposal and attachments—some agencies have strict requirements regarding the file type and name of your application. You wouldn’t want to risk hundreds of thousands in funding because you overlooked a requirement!
Finally, the National Institute of Health offers this recommendation as the “single most important thing” a business can do to help its chances for the SBIR program:
“Talking to an NIH Program Officer at the Institute or Center (IC) that is most closely related to your research topic is a critical step for success. Program Officers are subject-matter experts and will offer invaluable information about your application, including the relevance to the IC’s mission and any technical submission questions you may have. Program Officer contact information can be found here.”
Again, there’s not much you can do here—just sit, wait, and hope for the best.
Your proposal will get evaluated by the relevant peer reviewers working for the agency you’ve applied to. These reviewers might be external, internal, or a mix of both.
Depending on your timing in the application cycle and the agency you’ve applied to, hearing back about your proposal could take anywhere from 3 to 6 months, by the way.
The SBIR program agency will evaluate your proposal based on 3 main criteria:
If you think you’ve got all three, then there’s hope yet for that federal funding.
So if you hear back and your proposal was successful? What happens then?
Congratulations! You’ve gotten funding through the SBIR program—well done.
Well, you’ve only actually qualified for Phase I funding, which represents the concept development stage. You’re eligible for over $150,000 of non-dilutive capital—the average is $158,000—over the course of 6 months.
According to the SBIR program, the goal of Phase I is “to establish the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential of the proposed R/R&D efforts and to determine the quality of performance of the small business awardee organization prior to providing further Federal support in Phase II.”
In plain English, though, this is the period where your business works on the proposal concept, using that federal funding to figure out whether your proposal is actually workable in practice.
And if you’re concerned with “only” reaching Phase I, don’t worry: two-thirds of all SBIR program awards are Phase I. It’s a preparatory step to Phase II, helping you develop your proposal into something more likely to succeed down the road.
But say you’ve shown your proposal fits the request, is plausible to develop, and can be commercialized?
Next up: Phase II.
(And, by the way, 40% of Phase I awardees move forward.)
So you’ve proven that your proposal is a workable concept that can benefit the government—and everyone else!—if it gets developed.
Here comes Phase II: the biggest round of funding offered by the SBIR program.
You’ll have to apply once again, but this time around will be much simpler: your Phase I award should come with a timeline for your Phase II application, usually between 8 and 20 months later. Phase II awards are given based on the results of your Phase I tests and research and are intended to fund the creation of an actual, workable prototype. (And 55% of Phase II proposals get awards, too.)
In other words, Phase II is when you move from idea to product.
Here’s what you need to know:
This stage of the program last for around 2 years and you can get over $1 million in federal funding. The average financing is roughly $920,000 overall, but it depends on your proposal as well as your federal agency.
The Navy, for example, gives Phase II SBIR program awardees anywhere between $500,000 and $1,500,000, as well as the chance to secure a second Phase II round of funding if you still need more money and funds.
On the other hand, the National Science Foundation grants Phase II winners up to $750,000—still nothing to sneeze at!
The SBIR program’s Phase II also comes with a few special opportunities you should be aware of:
1. Phase IIB
This is the official name for when you renew your Phase II application for another round of funding—like what the Navy offers, as we said just a moment ago.
Other federal agencies offer this opportunity, too—like the Department of Health & Human Services—for research and development proposals that need a particularly long amount of time and large amount of money to get from theory to prototype.
Here’s what the National Institute of Health has to say about the SBIR program’s Phase IIB:
“Phase IIB awards are intended to provide follow-on funding to small businesses for projects that require extraordinary time and effort in the R&D phase and may or may not require FDA approval for the development of projects such as drugs, devices, vaccines, therapeutics, and medical implants.”
One common cause for a Phase IIB renewal is the need for approval from a different government agency, like the FDA, to continue with research. If you think your product might need that extra time and financing, make sure to speak with your agency’s SBIR program representatives well in advance!
2. Fast Track
Some agencies have a “Fast Track” option, though the specifics of these programs might change from department to department.
The Department of Health & Human Services, for example, calls “Fast Track” its system of applicants submitting proposals for Phase I and Phase II together.
On the one hand, you’ll get a lot of financing, guaranteed—without having to wait between phases for your application to get re-processed. But on the other, this option involves much more work and lower odds, which might deter you.
The Department of Energy notes that, if after Phase I efforts the results are not encouraging, then Phase II funding won’t be offered—even if you’ve been accepted with the Fast Track program. Its Fast Track awards of up to $1,725,000 go to “scientifically meritorious applications that have an especially high potential for commercialization.”
What the Department of Defense calls its “Fast Track” program, however, is slightly different…
Instead of applying for the SBIR program’s Phase I and Phase II at the same time, you apply to Phase II when you’re nearing the end of your Phase I project: “within 150 days after the effective date of the SBIR Phase I contract,” although this timespan changes depending on which sub-branch you’re working with.
(DARPA requires that you submit a Fast Track application “no later than the last day of the 6th month of the phase I effort,” while the Army recommends that Fast Track applications “be submitted within seven months of Phase I contract award in order to maximize the likelihood of funds availability.” These are just two examples, but you get the idea—and should double-check if you work with the Department of Defense!)
Be sure to check with your agency’s Fast Track rules before you apply, since you might save yourself time and energy in the long run.
3. Direct Phase II
Finally, some agencies—like the Department of Health & Human Services—offer a direct-to-Phase II program.
It’s just what it sounds like: you skip the Phase I application, and funding, to head straight to the bigger Phase II financing package.
But why do that?
Well, this pilot program is directed at small businesses that have “performed the Phase I stage-type of research through other funding sources” already.
In other words, they’ve proven their concept out with private investments or other grants, and they want the SBIR program’s Phase II round of funding to help develop a commercially-viable prototype.
Phase I doesn’t make sense for these businesses—because they’ve already done the work.
However, many agencies don’t have a direct Phase II program, so you might be limited by the type of research you’re carrying out if you’re looking to skip a step.
It might seem a bit odd that the SBIR program’s Phase III actually comes with…
What’s going on here?
You see, the point of Phase III isn’t to keep giving you government money as you research and develop your original proposal. You’re done with all that.
Now it’s the SBA’s goal to commercialize you.
Instead of getting a government grant through the SBIR program, you’ll either procure non-SBIR program federal funds through a contract with your agency or find private capital to keep financing your business.
Basically, with a Phase III award, you’re very much in line to snag a substantial investment from beyond the SBIR program.
Those funds might come from a traditional source of capital, like an investment bank or private equity firm, or you might get a contract to work with the government.
The Department of Defense might want to extend a contract so you can keep working together, refining your technology. (But don’t worry—the small business owners will keep their intellectual property rights over their developments. That’s an important part of the SBIR program.)
Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation would rather help you find outside investors to help you finish your research and ship your product to market.
Essentially, the SBIR program will try to match you with the best market for your technology or scientific innovation.
And though Phase III is a bit more complicated and difficult, the SBIR program has still managed to help around 700 companies go public—including Google—and led to the creation of over 70,000 patents. (That’s roughly a quarter of all utility patents granted by the U.S.!)
With commercialization as its end goal, the SBIR program lets the government give back to the rest of us in a big way.
Earlier, we outlined the SBIR program’s 4 main goals:
But how does the SBA’s Office of Investment and Innovation actually measure its own success?
Here are the SBIR program’s four main metrics:
After receiving SBIR program funding, did the small business create jobs?
This is a pretty straightforward way to measure the SBIR program’s success—by seeing whether these innovations impact our economy. After all, the government doesn’t want only these small businesses to benefit.
We all should.
That’s why the SBA hopes that its award-winners become more successful, creating jobs and developing technologies that contribute to our economy.
After all, nearly 50% of private sector jobs belong to small businesses—and the more, the better.
When a company moves from Phase I to Phase II within the SBIR program, a few important things happen:
The more businesses move from Phase I to Phase II, the more successful the SBIR program is in several different ways.
Of course, the SBIR program cares about each individual small business it finances, too.
More business growth—and more profit generated by these businesses once they’ve finished the SBIR program’s funding—means the SBA has done a good job.
This is the point of Phase III, in fact:
Helping these small businesses match up with the markets that will prove most fruitful for whatever innovation they’ve come up with. Whether it’s a government contract or a private equity firm investment, the benefits these businesses get should help them develop into financially successful companies.
Last but definitely not least, one of the SBIR program’s metrics is how equitable it actually is.
According to Weinberg, there is an “underlying mission across the government to increase resources to underserved communities,” after all.
One way to keep track of this?
The percentage of financing that goes to small businesses that are majority owned by women, minorities, and other historically disenfranchised groups of people.
Currently, 23% of the SBIR program’s funds go towards these communities—and while that’s a good start, the SBA’s work here is never done.
Getting more equal funding is important, but so is getting more equal applications.
That’s why the SBIR program…
For example, the SBA runs a women entrepreneur alumni group for female innovators who succeeded through the SBIR program. It also holds full-day women-in-STEM conferences at colleges and universities across the country.
And, of course…
There’s the SBIR program road tour.
This actual bus tour travels across the entire country, spreading the news to different communities about “America’s largest seed fund coming to a city near you.” From Louisville, KY, to Fargo, ND, and from Ruston, LA, to Chicago, IL, this bus has swept the highways and local roads of the United States.
SBIR program managers from each of the 11 agencies, as well as other staff members, travel on the bus together.
To “promote the program and get SBIR on the radar for underrecognized communities.” Whether you’re in the southeast or the midwest, the SBIR road tour should hold an annual regional event nearby.
So next time they’re in town, make sure to drop by and say hello.
“The government is committed to advancing innovation,” says Matthew Weinberg. And the SBIR program is “a special piece of the government that’s really, deeply responsible for thinking about how to make the future better, brighter, and safer for future generations.”
Whether you’re a small business owner looking to apply for funding, a potential entrepreneur on the search for inspiration, or an everyday citizen benefitting from the SBIR program’s many life-changing breakthroughs, you have the Small Business Administration—and the small businesses of the United States—to thank.
So here’s to the next big moonshot idea, waiting for the SBIR program to help it change the world. After all… It might just be yours.