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."

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