U.S. Innovation Has Bright Future Because of 30-Year-Old Small Business Innovation Research Program

 

SBA - The Small Business Advocate

by Dr. Winslow Sargeant, Chief Counsel for Advocacy

Thirty years ago, as part of the Small Business Act of 1982, a little known program that began as a pilot at the National Science Foundation (NSF) was expanded to more agencies involved in extramural research. This program—the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), and its partner, the Small Business Technology Transfer Program (STTR)—have provided funding for some of the best early-stage innovative ideas that otherwise might have remained on the scientific shelf.

Championed by Milton (Milt) Stewart, the first chief counsel for advocacy at the U.S. Small Business Administration, and under the leadership of Roland Tibbetts, SBIR/STTR went on to become one of the best uses of taxpayer dollars in commercializing federally funded research. The SBIR/STTR program is often held up as a model public/private partnership, one which has enabled the United States to remain the most innovative country in the world. The announcement in December 2011 that SBIR/STTR had been re-authorized for another six years gave a boost to all of us who are committed to seeing the United States retain its leading position in worldwide innovation.  

My first job in the federal government was that of SBIR program manager at the NSF. From this position, I witnessed firsthand the vital role this program plays in providing seed funding for cutting-edge ideas. The three-phase approach to funding is well structured to allow the incubation process to succeed (Phase I—feasibility research; Phase II—research toward prototype; and Phase III—commercialization).

During my time at NSF, I helped provide funding to hundreds of companies, many of which successfully commercialized their technologies. Studies by the National Academies of Science and others have documented the successful technologies and services developed by companies funded by SBIR/STTR. They include Qualcomm, Genzyme, and Symantec—global brands that now employ hundreds of thousands of people and whose contributions to the U.S. economy have been extraordinary.  

With the re-authorization of the program, the Office of Advocacy is coordinating roundtables that allow small business owners and entrepreneurs to talk with Sean Greene, the SBA’s associate administrator for investment and innovation. Greene is the point person for new proposed regulations implementing revisions to SBIR. For the first time, Congress’s authorization allows companies with majority ownership by venture capital operating companies (VCOCs) to compete for SBIR funding. Agencies will set caps on the dollar amount that these majority-owned companies may receive. The current public comment process allows for an open exchange on how each agency will implement the new rules. It is important to get this program right.

On a recent trip to Florida, I visited three small businesses that source innovative manufacturing products and services to large global brands. In Jacksonville, Nova Pressroom Products, LLC, and Myers-Seth Pump, Inc., supply environmentally friendly products for publishing and advanced pumping technology, respectively.

In Gainesville, I toured Sinmat, a high-tech manufacturing company founded by Drs. Deepika Singh and Rajiv Singh. Sinmat began operations in 2002 when it received SBIR funding. I was the program manager who recommended funding for it. Ten years later, Sinmat has 28 patents, more than 20 employees, and plans to double over the next few years. The CEO, Deepika Singh, shared with me that Sinmat would not have survived without SBIR funding. Sinmat’s employees come from diverse backgrounds, including a laid-off car mechanic whose machinery skills ideally suit him for its chemical mechanical polishing technology and a former electrician who has been retrained to help develop better products and services.

The SBIR program has stood the test of time. Thirty years have provided us with an extensive track record of the success of SBIR–funded companies. I am honored to follow in Milt Stewart’s footsteps; Milt remained a vocal champion of small business and of SBIR. Innovation, entrepreneurship, and commercialization have a friend in SBIR, and the Office of Advocacy will continue to be its champion.

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