Manny Oliver, Director of the Small Business Innovation Research & Small Business Technology Transfer Programs for the Department of Energy, discusses the objectives of these programs and how companies can apply for funding.

 

Full transcript:

Ben Lack:What does the SBIR do and how can businesses get funding from your program?
Manny Oliver:Small businesses submit applications in response to Funding Opportunity Announcements that are specific to SBIR and STTR.  SBIR stands for Small Business Innovation Research and STTR stands for Small Business Technology Transfer. These Funding Opportunity Announcements are targeted only at small businesses. They typically contain topics related to DOE’s mission and the applications are submitted through www.grants.gov portal that is used by many federal agencies. Before applying we encourage applicants to review background materials on the DOE SBIR webpage. The webpage contains general information about DOE’s SBIR and STTR programs as well as information on current and past Funding Opportunity Announcements. Both the SBIR and STTR grants are awarded into 2 phases.A Phase 1 grant is focused on evaluating the feasibility of the innovation; DOE provides funding up to $150,000over 9-months for this phase. Phase 2 grants, which are only available to Phase 1 awardees, typically focus on prototype development with funding levels up to $1,000,000 dollars over 2 years. During the fiscal year 2012, DOE will issue 3 Phase 1 Funding Opportunity Announcements for these programs.
Ben Lack:How many companies have applied and at what point to do you decide when it makes sense for a company to get the funding they are asking for?
Manny Oliver:First, I should mention it is a large program. We typically have on the order of 2000 applications per year and we fund approximately 250-300 Phase 1 awards per year and about half that number of Phase-2 awards. It is also very competitive because as you can see we’re awarding at the Phase 1 level only about 10-15% of those who apply and at Phase 2 level about 50% of those who apply.
Ben Lack:From a personal perspective, I am curious to know why this is an important initiative for you to spend your time on?
Manny Oliver:I came from a private industry to this position and in that role I worked extensively with small businesses to bring innovations into the company that I worked for. We are seeing a shift in innovation in America where more and more of it is moving to small businesses. I think the very competitive nature of business today compared to 20 years ago is responsible for that trend.   Companies don’t have the large R&D budgets they did in the past and they have to rely on small businesses to bring those innovations to them. So, this particular program actually helps foster that early stage innovation that has disappeared somewhat from larger companies in the private sector.
Ben Lack:Would you mind giving us an example that received an award and what their technology was like.
Manny Oliver:The first is Optimal Solutions, Inc. of Bridgewater, New Jersey. This small business was awarded a grant to leverage high performance computing both in the architecture and algorithms for the benefit of the US manufacturing. They are specifically addressing the complex scheduling problems that arise in multi-product, multi-line manufacturing sites. DOE’s Office of Advanced Scientific Computing provides funding for basic research in high performance computing and is utilizing the SBIR and STTR programs to transfer the benefits of this research to the private sector. The proposed software application would enable US manufacturers to more efficiently use their resources thereby increasing their global competitiveness.DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research is currently funding basic science research on the engineering of microorganisms for future bio-energy applications. One of the key challenges they face is the lack of tools that allow them to quickly identify the specific metabolic pathways that can be utilized for this application. Although, high throughput sequencing has greatly increased the speed in which genomic information can be acquired, there is no parallel equivalent for evaluating the metabolic pathways in connecting these pathways to the genomic information. Evolvemol of Berkeley, California was awarded a grant to develop a high throughput microfluidic platform that would address this problem. Their technology, if successful, would enable more rapid advances in bio-energy research.Niowave, Inc. of Lansing, Michigan was awarded a grant that may dramatically change how the US produces radioisotopes for nuclear medicine applications. The majority of radioisotopes used in the United States come from foreign suppliers or are generated parasitically in large government accelerators and reactors. There approach limits the availability of radioisotopes especially short-lived ones and discourages the development and evaluation of new isotopes and radiopharmaceuticals. The advances in accelerator technology funded by DOE’s Office of Nuclear Physics have enabled the development of very compact and cost-effective linear accelerator technology. Niowave will leverage these advances to develop a compact nuclear accelerator for potentially using commercial radioisotopes production facilities. These facilities could be sited close to large metropolitan areas to supply a broad range of isotopes reliably and economically.
Ben Lack:So those examples of companies give us a good snapshot of the wide range of projects that the program invest in. I’m curious to know what type of success do you have to show in order to defend the amount of money that is invested in these types  of companies or ask for money so that you and the program can invest more in these companies in the future?
Manny Oliver:Let me give you some background on how these programs are funded. The SBIR and STTR programs are mandated by Congress for agencies that carry out R&D.  The agencies are required by the statutes that govern these programs to allocate a certain percentage of their extramural R&D budget for these programs. So, unlike other budget items for R&D for the federal agencies, this is not one where they present a budget request to Congress every year.
Ben Lack:Interesting! As you manage this program going forward what can the constituents and citizens of the US expect to come out of this program? Is it more of the same or do you see other types of technologies that might not be as you know well understood by the general public get funded through a program like yours, the one that you are managing.
Manny Oliver:There are two areas that I am focusing in terms of managing the program.   One is making the program more responsive to small businesses. We are making changes, for example, in the number of opportunities we provide for businesses to send their ideas to us for evaluation. In the past we only had one solicitation per year; this year we will have three. We’re also publishing our topics in advance of our solicitations to allow more open discussions between small business and DOE program managers, so that they will have a better understanding of what we’re innovations we are seeking.We are also reducing the time that it takes for DOE to process their application and get back to them with a decision to start funding their technologies. There is a lot of activity to improve the efficient operation of the program and make it more responsive to small business community.The other major focus is on the outcomes of the program. There we are going in and evaluating the data on the past commercialization results. We do have large successes, companies that have grown so fast they are no longer small businesses.  These companies have revenues in the range of a hundred million dollars As with any large investment portfolio, there will be a wide variety of outcomes. We are trying to focus on what are the reasons companies have been successful and how can we improve the outcomes across all companies participating in the DOE program. Because DOE has a fairly broad mission on clean energy, basic science as well as nuclear security we do fund a fairly broad range of technologies, some of which people don’t necessarily associate with the Department of Energy. I think many people still think in terms of clean energy, renewable energy, and energy efficiency as the types of R&D funded by DOE. I think the three examples I gave you earlier provide examples of the breadth of the Department of Energy mission.
Ben Lack:Before we’d let you go, is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?
Manny Oliver:Just that we are trying to be much more open and transparent for the small companies that use our programs. Hopefully these efforts will make the programs more effective for small businesses and DOE.