Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Re-inventing SBIR?

They've been meeting for almost a year with good intent: make SBIR more "effective and efficient". They're calling it SBIR 2.0 - borrowing on the Web 2.0 lexicon that heralded the shift from passive viewing of web content to active interaction among all elements of the web community (from content creators to content users) in a collaborative fashion.

Don't be fooled. It's not the same thing. Not even close. They're talking the talk. But not walking the walk.

Collaboration? Among newbie Agency SBIR Directors (the content creators) - maybe. Are SBIR funded companies (the content users) involved? Nope. Were past and retired SBIR Program Directors consulted? Nope. Were SBIR's founders consulted? Nope. (I'm certainly not in the loop -- not that I should be, although I do have ideas that could have merit -- so if some of the "Nopes" are erroneous, I apologize. But I bet the Nopes are pretty accurate.)

The SBIR 2.0 effort is being spearheaded by Sean Greene, the SBA's Associate Administrator for Investment and Special Advisor for Innovation. (Don'tcha just love government titles?) He's a good guy, a true friend to SBIR, and, as I said, well intentioned. But the naivete here is disturbing.

Here's a quick outline of what's included in the SBA's SBIR 2.0 initiative:

Simplification and Streamlining
- Shortening the contract/grant initiation period after award
- Building a web portal to search for available open topics
- Clarify and simplify SBIR Data Rights
Shared Best Practices
- Expanding bridge financing programs (between Phases)
- Expanding SBIR to facilitate tech transfer (ala NIST)
- Issuing joint agency solicitations
Better Performance Management
- Implement common performance metrics across agencies
- Share performance data publicly

Ambitious for sure! It would be marvelous to get all of that to work. But, folks, it ain't gonna happen quickly. Some aspects may not happen at all. The challenges are daunting. Some of the issues have been debated for years without consensus!

Every one of the agencies can improve the efficiency of project initiation after award. All it takes is money allocated to pay for administration. They haven't got any for this. Current SBIR law doesn't allow use of SBIR apportioned funds for admin. Unfortunately, last I knew, SBIR reauthorization which may fix that provision, hasn't happened yet.

And, at least for DOD, the SBIR Program Managers have NO CLOUT WHATEVER with component contracting authorities, who completely control the contract initiation process. I've seen contracting delays of as much as two YEARS! And, if they did have some clout, the current Army default of Phase I payments every two or three months (instead of monthly) wouldn't be the practice. Can you spell "cash flow"?

A "one-stop-shop" portal with a topic search feature? Gee, don't we already have one? It's called The SBIR Gateway. Not a penny of government money funds it, by the way. The "official" SBIR website ( certainly could use some work - and a topic search engine - but why waste taxpayer money re-creating something that already works? Or is it simply a control issue?

Getting agencies to work together for improved SBIR efficiency? Don't make me laugh. The agencies are too different and too bureaucratically rigid to make any "one style fits all" approach work. Just the difference in competition compliance requirements between contracting and granting agencies alone makes the whole effort quite unlikely.

Clarifying SBIR Data Rights? PLEASE DO! But this involves getting lawyers to agree. Good luck with that. Ron Cooper, another good guy from the SBA, is at the point for this. If you have ideas, he'd like to hear them.

They're trying a working-together experiment - a five-agency (NIH, DARPA, DHS, NSF, and USDA) joint solicitation on Robotics. Just announced. Here's the info: Warning: Take two aspirin before reading, and call me in the morning. Heaven help us, the NIH SBIR application system will be used to collect all five agencies' Robotics proposals!

The NIH's system? Yikes! Y'all know what I think about it: It Sucks! For those of you who are used to doing DOD SBIR proposals, be prepared for EXTREME frustration! I've even put out an SBIR Coach's Newsletter issue about what to expect.

Regarding expanding bridge and commercialization funding, Kristina Johnson, the person at DOE who got their first of its kind Phase III funding initiatives in place, is apparently and suddenly leaving the agency. And the NIST "SBIR TT" program cited as the example for innovative SBIR tech transfer just lost it's creator, Cara Asmail, who's moved on to another NIST post. We have a leadership gap.

The turnover issue also extends to agency SBIR Program Director/Manager roles, as many newcomers are sitting in those chairs this year. I wonder how many of them have actually read the SBIR Policy Directive? Probably about as many as our legislators who actually read the bills they vote for.

Finally, common performance metrics? Oh, please! The agencies don't currently have ANY meaningful SBIR performance metrics. At the Beyond Phase II Conference last week, we were shown some (I thought suspicious) statistics on alleged SBIR performance, but there's no consensus on what constitutes SBIR success and no data gathering that has integrity or accuracy. I'm sure the SBIR funded companies have quite a different view of "success metrics" than do the agencies. Who provides the data? Who collects it? Who is to analyze it? What's to be done with the results? All still undefined.

I'm not usually pessimistic, but it's hard to have optimism about SBIR 2.0. Just being well intentioned doesn't cut the mustard. Maybe I'm jaded. Maybe I'm tired of being told to "trust" and "have hope" for "change" we can count on.

Change huh? This Administration's idea of "change" makes me shudder. (And make no mistake about it, the SBA is an arm of this Administration.) Will "simplification" mean adoption of the NIH's horribly complex SBIR collection and evaluation system? Will "best practices" for laying SBIR eggs (and making them into omelets) be defined by the eggs rather than the chickens? Will "performance metrics" have anything to do with creating jobs and producing innovative technology by giving small businesses access to Federal R&D opportunities?

Until SBIR is reauthorized, much of this is moot. Any efficiency changes will be limited and intra-agency. And, Lord knows, intra-agency efficiency changes are sorely needed! Effectiveness changes? Who knows what that even means?

I do applaud what Sean Greene and the Agency SBIR Program Directors (with a special nod to Chris Rinaldi at DOD) are trying to do with SBIR 2.0. They're sincere and trying hard to do what's best for SBIR. I just entreat them to do it smart and not ignore the user community and what's been tried in the past. Involve Roland Tibbetts, Ann Eskesen, and Jere Glover in the dialog and listen to what they have to say. Involve small business and their advocacy arm, the SBTC, too. Make SBIR 2.0 truly collaborative.

If you're going to talk the talk, please walk the walk.


Carl Nelson said...

Good comments, Fred.

SBIR's problem isn't efficiency; that's just talk for handing out the money faster with fewer controls. And the agencies with the money are not going to take much instruction from SBA which has no skin in the game.

The problem as you hint is the lack of an acceptable way to measure results against the alleged objective of improving national innovation by getting market agile businesses into federal R&D. Handing out money faster is not a result; it is an input. And SBA could possibly do some evaluation by using the reports the companies make to IRS and Social Security of business volume, employees, and taxes. But SBA is afraid to do such stuff because its constituents don't want the embarrassment of a laughable ROI.

Hey, economics accounting is really hard; just ask the people arguing over whether the Obama stimulus was good or bad.

Until there is some commitment to results, the program is just politics of handouts to noisy constituent groups.

Anonymous said...

NIH submission system sucks? I find it on a par with Fastlane, and I have submitted a couple of applications to both NIH and NSF. Fairly smooth and uneventful experience, in both cases. I am afraid you are missing the point here.

The real threat of joint solicitations is not in the nuts and bolts of the submission systems. It is rather the danger of contamination of the nice and small business-friendly institutional cultures (e.g. DoD, NSF) with the rotten, elitist culture of the National Institutes of Health. The role of the Program Officer (the NIH PO is just a clerk with a doctorate, while his NSF counterpart is the actual decision maker), the role and attitude of the review panels, the checks and balances, the academia-oriented institutional ethos of NIH and their indisputable contempt for small business (ARRA exclusion!), these things...