Friday, September 11, 2009

SBIR Reauthorization Redux? No Such Luck.

Here we are -- just a few days from expiration of the third SBIR Reauthorization Continuing Resolution. Is there any hope for resolution by the end of the month? Nope.

Word from behind the scenes is that discussions are pretty much at a standstill. Staffers on the various Committees are standing firm on their bosses' positions. Provisions to significantly open up eligibility, provide special preferences having nothing to do with technology, eliminate the Phase I vetting process, have multiple Phase II awards possible, and increase funding caps without increasing the funding base just aren't going away. There's as much spirit of compromise here as there is on the health care debate. Nada. Zilch.

The University lobby has been pushing hard for just plain letting the SBIR program expire. They've been consistent over the years on this. They want "their" $2B back! Research is "their" game. Tech Transfer royalties from commercialization of innovations is "their" reward -- never mind that they, for the most part, can't figure out how to do it!

The VC/BIO lobby has been keeping up the drumbeat too. BIO had a press conference yesterday where they expressed how they were "very pleased with the result of the vote on the reauthorization bill in the House." They repeated the "Big Lie" that the bill was "an attempt to overturn "fairly arbitrary" administrative agency decisions that prevented venture capital-funded companies from participating." Arbitrary? Participating? Sheesh! Perception management at its best.

There are actually provisions in the House bill that move SBIR administration out of the SBA and into the Department of Commerce with oversight controlled by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. If this happens, SBIR becomes a politicized innovation economy program, with true small businesses frozen out of participation.

Some will argue that this is a good thing; that it will improve the Government's ROI on R&D investment. Perhaps it will. But, the vision of Arthur Obermayer, Roland Tibbetts, the late Ted Kennedy, and many others, for fostering innovation from true entrepreneurs, will be lost. That would be a shame.

The SBA is in trouble folks. SBIR isn't the only SBA administered program that is languishing in Committee and facing expiration. Will they survive as an independent agency? I fear not. SBIR being moved out is, in my opinion, an omen.

My prediction, shared by many in the SBIR Advocacy: we'll get another SBIR Continuing Resolution. How long? I say six months -- taking us to next March.

Some of the Agencies aren't waiting for Congress to act. Some are independently increasing funding caps. DOE and NSF, for example, are now providing $150K for Phase I, and DOE is doing $1M for Phase II. Others, like DOD and NASA, are standing pat. NIH generally ignores caps anyhow. It's really getting confusing -- helps justify the need for a coach! (smile)

So, the SBIR game is still being played, although the rule book is being very liberally interpreted. Check out the Gateway for proposal opportunities, and monitor for updates on what Congress is (or isn't) doing.

The SBIR Coach will be at the NASVF Conference next week, and at the DOD sponsored Beyond Phase II Conference the week after that. My columns will report on what I learn there. Stay tuned.

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