Friday, September 4, 2009

Reflections on the Birth of the SBIR Program

SBIR lost perhaps its greatest champion on August 25th with the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy. Relatively few know how much he did to ensure the SBIR Program became reality.

There were many back in the late 1970s and early 80s who worked tirelessly to get the legislation crafted and passed. Among them was my friend Ann Eskesen. Ann recently shared an email letter she had received that shed much light on that early process, including Ted Kennedy's behind-the-scenes role, and I'd like to give it wider exposure here.

To the SBIR Community:

Whether strong supporter or ardent foe of his political stance, the recent passing of Senator Ted Kennedy has generated among those on both sides of the aisle extensive discussion of, and comment on, the extraordinary diversity of his legislative impact.

Few are aware that the creation of SBIR is high on that list.

This weekend I was in receipt of an email from an old friend who in the early-mid seventies was the original source of the idea of a special federal R&D access by small firms - an idea that later became the SBIR program - and with whom a few of us then worked to get to the enabling legislation which took that program government-wide in 1982. My friend's email is printed below in its entirety along with, from my own files, some photographs from the Rose Garden of the White House on that very hot and humid day in July 1982 when President Reagan signed that very controversial legislation.

It is useful, I think, first also to tell you a little about Dr. Arthur Obermayer - the essence of the dignified gentleman and creative talent - who is now well into his eighties and still active in the technology development space.

Arthur was/is a highly regarded MIT PhD and his wife - Judy - also a published PhD from Carnegie Mellon, had run a very successful, research-based small firm for a long time through the sixties and seventies. Publicly traded when few small firms were, Moleculon Research was founded, I think I recall, on the research that had been Arthur's doctoral dissertation.

Their work had important medical application. However, despite a solid, research-based track record, when Arthur approached NIH for potential R&D support, he was summarily turned away. At that time NIH did not fund anyone who came from a for-profit entity - a condition that actually remained in effect until only months before passage of SBIR.

Knowing that they were probably missing out on something important, however, a few senior NIH players advised Arthur to set up a non-profit arm which they told him they would be delighted to fund. He saw that as manipulating the system - effective for his firm but not an option for many others - and he refused. Instead he had a discussion with his Senator and his friend - Ted Kennedy.

At that time, the Senator controlled the NSF budget to some extent so the decision was obviously to go with that agency, not NIH. Arthur's idea was simply that there be established a place in a federal agency where small firm applicant's research work could be considered. The Phase I-Phase II classic SBIR design was Roland Tibbetts - subsequently hired by NSF as the first SBIR program Manager - and came much later.

It is classic Kennedy that he knew how to work the system. However, I have to admit, I had not previously known that was actually a two-step process until I read Arthur's accounting of the NSF effort to avoid the Kennedy original directive and his out-maneuvering them - see below. It is also classic Kennedy that when, with two NSF SBIR offerings and one DOD under our belts, we subsequently shifted the political effort to making SBIR a government wide program, rather than being at the head of what was to become a highly contentious and, at times, downright nasty fight, the Senator opted for a behind-the-scenes role - out of the frame but very clearly, not out of the picture. Instead, that leadership role was assumed by Warren Rudman (NH.R) - a brand new Senator and a Republican.

It was also Arthur Obermayer, BTW who met with Horace Crouch in DOD in about 1979-1980. Crouch was a retired Army General working in the Pentagon but open to the interesting challenge of enabling an effort that would bring within reach of DOD, the leading-edge capabilities of small firms. It happened that Horace Crouch was Strom Thurmond's brother in law - already then a senior player on the Senate Armed Service committee. Arthur persuaded them to the idea of having a version of the NSF program in DOD. They found a spare $5M and DESAT was launched as a small-scale effort in DOD in 1981.

With the NSF and DOD experience in place and a record of achievement already becoming evident, under the able direction of the late Milt Stewart, to include Arthur and Judy and a few others some like Jere Glover and Dave Metzger - being still prominent in the SBIR space - in 1980 we all worked the halls (big time) at the White House Conference on Small Business to get SBIR and the precursor to Bayh-Dole among other things onto the agenda of that convening. I am still somewhat incredulous, when you consider how few we were, that we got that assembly of 2000 small business people - most of whom were in retail, services etc (nary a high tech firm among them) - to vote that issue (as I recall) Number 5 of the 60 top recommendations to come out of that Conference. As further testament what can happen when small firms speak together, of those 60 recommendations - well over 40 are now implemented.

Ann Eskesen, President
The Innovation Development Institute
Swampscott, MA

See Dr. Obermayer's letter
"The Role of Ted Kennedy in the Birth of the SBIR Program"
by clicking HERE.

L to R: The Obermayers, Senator Kennedy, and Ann Eskesen (7/22/82)

President Reagan signing the SBIR Program into law on July 22, 1982.

1 comment:

Aderson said...

I appreciate the labor you have put in developing this blog. Nice and informative.