Fourteen continuing resolutions later, Congress finally re-authorized the Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, and Small Business Technology Transfer grant programs for an additional six years. Offered in two phases, the initiatives give between $150,000 and $1 million to help companies bring new technologies to reality.
That’s great news for firms that pride themselves on delivering cutting-edge systems, but it by no means indicates a return to the days of old. Budgets are still going to be scrutinized more than ever as increased emphasis on spending controls continues to take hold in Washington.
Invitation to Innovation
Nevertheless, it is entirely possible to get federal funding for innovation, so long as the organizations seeking such grants possess a culture of creating innovation and a strategy for success. Case in point — last year, my company developed a mobile app prototype for the Department of Homeland Security under the SBIR program that enables citizens to access DHS-disseminated public information faster and with greater accuracy. While experience has something to do with it, I believe the catalysts for securing the grant were three other factors:
Our team found a small technology issue that’s causing big problems. While a major headache for DHS, the problem was overlooked by larger firms because it wasn’t big enough of an initiative for them to make a large profit. Solving the issue, though, would be a great boon to our company — hence our opportunity.
There were various ways to address the issue. Solutions to the DHS problem could have taken many forms, and there was no specific technical option that was favored over another. This allowed our team members to create sample scenarios to showcase ingenuity and innovation, including how the mobile app can alert individuals on areas to avoid due to fire, flood or terrorist attack, all by aggregating emergency frequency broadcast and GPS technology.
We could break up the solution into phases. Trying to solve the entire problem in one fell swoop may be so daunting to the SBIR process and agency that it overwhelms them to the point of inaction. For us, we broke down the mobile app development process for DHS into three phases:
The prototype development stage; the first generation application design/testing phase; and the commercial application phase. This did two things for the government agency. First, it gave them an out at various stages, thereby lowering the risk of long-term engagement. Second, we didn’t have to build out the entire infrastructure all at once to fulfill the contract, but instead we could parcel that over an extended period of time, preserving cash flow in the process.
Despite the slowdown in government contract work, there remains ample opportunity for small businesses to secure federal funding for innovative projects. There’s greater competition for those dollars to be sure, but it can be done if you look closely enough to find opportunities that, while small, have the potential to cause big problems that aren’t easily solved by tried and true methods.
Eric Basu is the president of Sentek Global, providers of government and commercial information technology solutions. He can be reached at email@example.com.