Friday, November 20, 2009

Is America losing its ability to innovate?

The headline and subtitle of the Newsweek story got my attention: "The Decline of Western Innovation -- Why America is falling behind and how to fix it."

Innovation. What is that anyhow? Webster says it's "(1) the introduction of something new. (2) a new idea, method, or device."

OK. That's simple enough. SBIR is supposed to provide funding for small businesses to develop new ideas, methods or devices for solving Federal agency defined problems. That's why the "I" is in SBIR, isn't it?

Has SBIR been effective in producing innovation? YES! The evidence is overwhelming.

A 2008 study done by two University of California at Davis professors, Fred Block and Matt Keller, addressed the subject of "Where Do Innovations Come From?"

It's great reading. Figure 6 is the highlight for me (click on it to expand):

R&D Magazine started issuing their "R&D 100" innovation awards in 1963. These awards honor the 100 most technologically significant products introduced into the marketplace over the past year.

SBIR was created in 1982. Figure 6 shows that approximately 25% of the R&D 100 awards now consistently go to SBIR/STTR funded companies. And they do it with a measly 2.8% of the Federal R&D budget to work with! Think about it.

It can't be any clearer: SBIR funds Innovation.

How do we regain the initiative in being the world's innovation leader? Seems simple to me. Expand SBIR. Make it available to more companies, not fewer. Make it a bigger part of the R&D priorities of our agencies. Don't weaken the process by which projects are vetted. Don't degrade the quality of projects by including non-technology criteria for award.

Send every Senator and Congressperson a copy of the Block/Keller article. Encourage them to read it. Yeah, we know that's wishful thinking. Well, maybe they'll at least look at the pictures. Especially Figure 6.

Then stress that the Senate's version of SBIR Reauthorization will encourage innovation. The House's version will inhibit it.


I had lunch with Matt Keller a few weeks ago. He's at SMU in Dallas now. He says they have a new article in prep. I can't wait to read it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Fork in the Road - Which Path for SBIR?

Yogi Berra was one of my heroes when I was a kid. He was in his prime as the perennial All-Star Catcher for the New York Yankees and I idolized him. But it wasn't until after he retired as a player and hit the banquet circuit did I really appreciate his genius.

His quotes have become apocryphal for their malapropisms and "huh?" factors. One of my favorites is, "This is like deja vu all over again." But the Yogi-ism that is applicable to the current SBIR reauthorization situation is, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."

The question is, which path at the fork do we take? Which way to go? Perhaps the path well traveled - follow the crowd. Sometimes it's the path someone pays you to take. Much of the time, it's the path of least resistance.

In my opinion we're at that Fork with SBIR.

The House is leaning toward the path they're being paid (via campaign contributions) to take, refusing to even talk with true small business interests.

The Senate is leaning toward the well traveled path - 27 years of successful SBIR history.

But in the spitit of "compromise" Congress is being pressured to take the path of least resistance.

Will SBIR remain a seed-funding program designed to enable Small Business participation in a fair competition for developing innovative solutions to agency problems, or will it become another program that funnels agency money to companies already funded by special interests that really have nothing to do with enabling small business innovation?

My friend Carl would argue that it's not the Government's job to foster or enable small business innovation, but rather to improve the ROI on use of the Government's taxpayer funded R&D money. I understand and appreciate that argument.

But I contend that without SBIR, we lose the opportunity for the little guy to fairly compete for a tiny slice of the pie. This opportunity makes the American innovation culture unique. I say if we lose it we're in danger of losing our entrepreneurial souls.

We've heard rumors of an impending compromise. The FDANEWS even ran this teaser in their subscription-only Devices and Diagnostics letter last Monday:

House, Senate May Be Close to Compromise on SBIR Act
The months-long wait for small device companies looking for revisions to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program may be nearing an end as a compromise version could be introduced later this month, a Senate staffer says. “We’re hopeful we will be able to reach compromise before the November recess,” Vicki Ekstrom, spokeswoman for the Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship, said...

They wanted ten bucks for the whole article. I sprung for it. Wasted my money. Not much more there -- just a rehash of the issues.

Compromises are a necessity in our multi-opinioned world. The pressure to get SBIR reauthorization done before Congress recesses for the Holidays probably means that the path of least resistance will be the Fork taken. Just get it done and off the table. Political pressures drive the give and take, not logic. That scares me.

With our Congress's current trend to vote on legislation without reading it first, who knows what we'll get? Frankly, only a few of our legislators really understand SBIR. Most have no clue and don't know where this program had been, let alone where it's going. As Yogi once said: "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

What should we do about this? Continue to educate legislators and their staffers on what's important. Encourage them to follow the Senate's lead. Keep the pressure on to NOT fundamentally change the SBIR program. SBIR isn't broke. It's just overdue for some modernization and tuning.

But mostly we just have to wait and see what the compromise includes. Waiting is hard. After five continuing resolutions, this process seems never ending. I'm tired of it.

So, I guess we'll leave this with one last Yogi-ism: "It ain't over 'til it's over."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Clever Clara Seeks to Close Research Gaps at NIST with SBIR TT

You've all heard the cliched proclamation: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you!" Rarely is it actually the truth. I have just encountered one case where, apparently, it is!

Her name is Clara Asmail. She's the SBIR Program Manager at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). She's charming, engaging, and absolutely brilliant. A multiple degreed physicist with an entrepreneurial bent. She'll talk technical with the best of you, while being a very helpful and competent administrator. A rare combination.

I attended Clara's presentation at the National SBIR Conference this week on what she's been doing to close research gaps that have prevented NIST funded technologies from achieving commercialization. She calls the program, initiated in 2008, SBIR TT (for Tech Transfer). The NIST SBIR website has a FACT SHEET to explain this innovative approach to fostering innovation.

Essentially, if you can show how you'll close the gap in some NIST research, Clara will give you a FREE non-exclusive research license to use the NIST technology in your project. On top of that, she'll fund your project with NIST SBIR money! Just as with any other SBIR project, rights to the results of the project are yours. And you get access to NIST personnel, facilities, and knowledge regarding the invention. What a deal!

Ann Eskesen was at the presentation too, and she called Clara's approach "The cleverest thing she's seen in thirty years!" Quite a statement from the lady who's seen it all, SBIR-wise!

NIST has just opened their FY2010 solicitation. See a quick list of the new NIST Regular (R) and Tech-Transfer (TT) opportunities HERE. Proposals are due by January 22nd.

We've heard rumors that there is some progress being made on SBIR Reauthorization, with the Senate offering a new compromise bill to the House. There's actually some hope that we'll get this resolved by the end of the year. I'm standing by my predictions for how it will all shake out. If you missed my prognostications, see them HERE. When we have details, I'll let you know.

And finally, we're saddened by the deplorable tragedy at our Texas' Fort Hood yesterday. The stress this incident has added to our brave soldiers and their families is immeasurable. Please join me in contributing to a phone-card initiative for helping Fort Hood soldiers communicate with their worried families.

A special website "Operation Call Home" has been established by an Austin radio station to accept donations for phone-cards. Here's the link: Thanks for your support.