Advice for other companies seeking R&D funding through the SBIR/STTR programs
Silicon Technologies, Inc.’s (STI) mission statement is simple: Work with the U.S. Government to bring semiconductor business back to the U.S. Tom Wolf, CEO & founder of STI, has been working with the Department of Defense through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to make this happen.
Wolf recently received a $2.8M SBIR Phase II award from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Over the past 10 years, the company has won multiple SBIR awards. Tom Wolf shared advice that might be useful to other small business owners on how to successfully receive funding through the federal SBIR program and work with the federal government to develop innovative technologies that are beneficial to the U.S.
When Wolf started SliceX in 1996, he relied on venture capital funds to build his business. As time passed, Wolf was not able to come to terms with the venture capitalists’ demands. When Wolf founded STI in 2009, he aimed to find non-dilutive funding and avoid relying on venture capital. He raised funds from paying customers and the SBIR program. Wolf preferred the SBIR program because it didn’t take control of his company.
Wolf got his foot in the door through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) SBIR Phase I program in 2011. The federal agency actually reached out to him and asked him to apply. He won $150,000 and started contracting with the Department of Defense on projects outside of the SBIR program.
There was a period of time when Wolf won multiple SBIR Phase I awards but never won Phase II. He observed the winning companies, had numerous discussions with the agencies, and was able to understand what he was doing wrong. Here are some tips that helped Wolf overcome that slump and win multiple Phase II awards:
Get Advice from the Agency by Meeting Them Unofficially
Most of the people working in these agencies are not familiar with the technologies needed for the contracts. They tend to pick companies they worked with in the past because that’s what they are familiar with. Wolf said, “You need to go to conferences these agencies are attending and talk to them. Whether they know you or not matters more than the technical proposal you’ll submit.”
Let the Agency Know That You Have the Technical Expertise
From time to time, you might feel like the agency picked technologies that don’t fit well with the SBIR solicitation. If you think that your technology provides the solution they are looking for, don’t hesitate to express it to the program officers when you see them in person. They probably don’t know the full capabilities of your company and your rival companies.
Appeal to the Agency That You Can Get Things Done
One of the main reasons these agencies award the same companies even without the full capacity or technical expertise is because the agencies know these companies can get work done. When you win an SBIR Phase I award and contract with an agency, make sure to show them that you can get work done. Use that experience as proof to other program officers that you are reliable.
Follow the Rules; Work With the Utah Innovation Center To Get the Details Down
Submitting a proposal for SBIR can be a tedious process. There are checklists full of things that need to be done in a specific way. Wolf said, “I’m a physicist. I’m good at the science and technical stuff, but I’m really bad at getting the details down. That’s why I always go to the Utah Innovation Center to make sure that I check all the boxes.” Your company might have the technology that can win multiple SBIR/STTR awards, but you might be missing that extra structure to help you submit the proposals correctly. You can always reach out to the Utah Innovation Center for help.
SBIR program can be rewarding. It’s a lengthy process and can be stifling at times. But as Wolf said, “You don’t know which ones you will win. And you don’t know what their plans are. Believe it or not, the Department of Defense always has a plan. Just keep submitting the proposals.”
The Innovation Center provides services to Utah companies at no cost. Clients have brought in over $150M to the Utah economy for research and development of innovative technologies. The Center provides direct proposal assistance, help to find a match, training and guidance on how to apply to the SBIR/STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) programs.