Gavin Carter, IN3 technical intern
While designed to help small businesses, there is nothing “small” about the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. Last year there were over 6,700 Phase I and Phase II awards across more than 20 federal agencies, administrations and departments. SBIR and STTR are research and development pipelines through which federal agencies sharpen their technological edge and reveal cutting-edge innovations for federal, commercial and academic uses. When successfully executed, ideas and scientific discoveries become commercial products, carried on through the entrepreneurial spirit of small businesses rising to meet the nation’s most pressing and perplexing technological needs.
To many who have worked with SBIR/STTR since its inception in 1982, these ideas and concepts will sound familiar. However, one aspect of SBIR/STTR work is less well-known. Technical and Business Assistance (TABA) funding, a crescent wrench in the SBIR/STTR toolbox, is funding applied by the participating federal agency on top of a Phase I/II award for commercialization activities. These activities can range from surveillance of existing and/or competing intellectual property, to developing a business plan, to hiring a marketing team and beyond.
In the SBIR/STTR community, TABA provides a bridge for a small business to deliver a product to market. It is especially useful for young companies in danger of not fielding a product due to their limited experience in growing a small business and lack of helpful connections, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “Valley of Death.” It is a fate all too common for scientists and engineers looking to become entrepreneurs — a goal that requires more than world-class technical expertise. Even the brightest minds need help from time to time, especially in the world of business development. Whether used to purchase marketing materials, market research, contract negotiation support, or even presentation coaching for pitch competitions, TABA is a broad brush. Despite its potential, some companies will have tens, perhaps hundreds, of ongoing SBIR projects before ever utilizing the TABA funds at their disposal, funds that companies could be using to commercialize intellectual property without losing business equity.
But what kind of funds are on the table? This all depends on the federal agency that awards the SBIR/STTR contract, but, for the most part, companies in Phase I are eligible for $6,500 per project in TABA funds, while those in Phase II are eligible for up to $50,000 – an ample sum to develop a business case for their innovation. Besides using TABA funds in Phase I to win a Phase II contract, some entrepreneurs have used the money in conjunction with other funding sources to win Phase III contracts and move straight to fielding a product. The path to commercialization is different for everyone, yet one posture towards the innovation pipeline consistently falls short. A “build it and they will come” mindset, or the belief that the innovation itself can bring partners to the table, puts a company at a great disadvantage in accomplishing anything beyond merely advancing the technology readiness level. An innovation cannot sell itself, regardless of its novelty or potential market share. Instead, TABA funds can be leveraged in the early stages of product development to network with potential end users and learn to speak their language. This facilitates shaping the product to their specifications, ensuring that it is met at the end of the pipeline with open arms instead of closed minds or confused looks. Here are some other helpful TABA suggestions from experts in the field:
- Network with potential TABA providers to find the right fit with connections in government, industry, and academia.
- For companies looking to work with the Department of Defense, IN3 is well-equipped to fulfill your market research and business development needs.
- Check to see if your state has a matching program for SBIR/STTR awards. Many do.
- Example: Indiana’s Elevate Ventures SBIR/STTR Matching Program will match up to 50% ($150,000 maximum) of a Phase I award as money that can be used in conjunction with TABA. See the full list here.
- Take part in pitch competitions and workshops to learn how to talk about your technology without revealing your hand – and you might win some prize money along the way.
- For Indiana companies, check out the Crane IP Defense Pitch Competition, hosted annually by Radius Indiana here.
- For any company, check out TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo, held every spring. Apply now to showcase your technology in front of the largest gathering of federal agencies, venture capital firms, contractors and consortia directors.
- Finally, join IN3 for one of their monthly Tech Tuesday events, a prime opportunity to pitch your offerings to academia, government, and industry. For a full list of past events and invitations to future events, see our events page here.
- Assess your successes AND your failures – most agencies will provide feedback from their evaluation of your proposal. Use your TABA funds to incorporate this feedback and improve for successive rounds of funding.
- Finally, begin mapping out a 10-year business plan as soon as you receive a Phase I award or hire someone to do it for you using TABA funds. When it comes to realizing your commercialization goal (Phase III), work on the front end to greatly increases your odds of passing through the “valley of death” unscathed!
Dr. Josh Smith from Luna Labs, a Virginia-based technology developer for the aerospace, energy, automotive, health sciences, first responder, telecommunications, and defense industries, works with IN3 through TABA. Here are his thoughts from a small-business perspective:
Q: What is TABA, to you?
Josh: For us at Luna Labs, TABA is a unique method to work with team members across industry and academia with very little risk to the project’s success. It’s a great tool if you’re looking to overcome any shortcomings in your market research, product development, business analysis and more.
Q: What does TABA use look like in your company?
Josh: With any new project, we always look to see if using TABA is appropriate to mitigate team shortcomings. It is a mainstay in our toolbox and fresh in everyone’s mind. I think we’ve done a great job in our company of advocating for its use.
Q: If TABA is such a powerful and adaptive tool, why aren’t more businesses using it?
Josh: TABA is a function within SBIR/STTR, so it’s already niche, and it requires that you win a contract first. However, I believe most businesses that can use TABA are not using it. Given that TABA is not required for technical proposals, it often falls to the wayside.
Q: What advice would you give to TABA first timers?Josh: Just because your company is the one applying the funding doesn’t mean that you can be hands off. Your TABA provider will need all the assistance and specificity you can supply. Without that, you might not end up with added value beyond what you could accomplish on your own.
For more information or TABA assistance, please contact IN3 via email at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you!
About the Author:
Hailing from Southern Indiana, Gavin Carter is a recent graduate of Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. As a newcomer to the world of defense acquisitions, interning with IN3 gave him world-class opportunities to learn from the best in the field across several federal agencies. Now, he is taking these lessons and connections with him into the U.S. Air Force, hoping to one day return and contribute to Indiana’s growing defense ecosystem.