JLABS held their third Orange County-based event at the Beach (the Cove’s event space) for their Meet With… series featuring Patti Weber, Program Director of the National Cancer Institute’s SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) Center. NCI’s mission is to cover the entire spectrum of cancer including early prevention, survivorship, therapeutics, and more. Her talk focused on non-dilutive, targeted funding opportunities in cancer-focused technology development for both SBIR and STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) applicants. Weber also shared the application and review process at the NIH (National Institute of Health) with the goal of helping small businesses submit strong applications with a higher likelihood of acceptance. Following the presentation, pre-qualified companies met with Weber one-on-one to discuss their proposal ideas for SBIR grants.
Focused on commercialization, industry-specific, non-dilutive government grants such as the SBIR predicate upon a small business concern’s ability to engage with federal research and development channels to move their proposed solution forward into the marketplace. Non-dilutive funding is a type that does not require the sale of a company’s equity voting rights, shares, or ownership in exchange for capital. In aggregate, federal agencies have an extramural R&D budget greater than $100M set aside for SBIR grants. Applicants for SBIR grants must meet the following criteria: they must be a small business concern, an organized for-profit U.S. business, with 500 or fewer employees which include affiliates, and with more than 50% ownership by individuals or independently operated. Alternatively, the applicant company can have more than 50% ownership by other business concerns, multiple venture capital operating companies, hedge funds, or private equity firms. The principal investigator’s primary employment must also be more than 50% with the small business concern at the time of award and for the duration of the project. Finally, applicants must have the rights secured for the IP being used to move forward with research, development, and commercialization.
“You should apply when your innovative solution is meeting a significant, unmet clinical need with significant commercial potential,” Weber said. Deciding between SBIR and STTR depends on the technology and where it originates. If the technology comes from an academic institution, the STTR would be more applicable. Both programs follow a similar application structure broken into three phases: (1) Feasibility, (2) Development, and (3) Commercialization. The first phase requires a proof of concept study while the second phase focuses on research and development in addition to a commercialization plan. Finally, the third phase is the commercialization stage. With new timelines focused on approving more than half of all applications within six months–the previous timeline ranging from eight to sixteen months from application to award–a compelling reason to seek these funding sources is it may serve as one of the largest sources of seed funding for an emerging startup.
“Before you apply, develop a relationship with the program director. Once you get a study section assignment and review date, call them and remind them, keeping your application on their radar. This will help you get an idea early on if there’s a chance you will be funded based on the score. At the minimum, reach out at least one month before the due date to discuss your proposal and receive feedback.” said Weber about the application process. The scoring system is based on a 10 to 90 scale, 10 being best and 90 being the worst. Program directors such as Weber play an active role coaching applicants in the preparation of their funding applications in addition to providing central oversight of all 400+ active, NCI-funded SBIR and STTR projects.
When asked about tips on preparing an application, Weber shared that the “hardest part is to write clearly and get to the core of the technology while outlining what you plan to do.” She suggests going to the SBIR website to research contract topics and summaries of specialized areas of grant focus to outline the proposal in terms of flow. Additionally, reviewing currently funded NIH projects can also provide insight on what may be important to include. Above all, clarity is key. Weber also cautioned applicants not to include any confidential information in the aims or abstract of the application since the information is made public. Taking time to refine the vision of the business and enlisting the help of potential customers, experts, and other stakeholders are also important since reviewers will also want to know that an organization has alternative approaches planned if problems arise. If an application is not awarded funding, Weber suggests that applicants respond to the summary statement that is provided from reviewers and respond to the most salient concerns on the next submission. For organizations who need help defining their value proposition, Weber suggested programs such as I-Corps, a 6-week intensive taught by subject matter experts to help define the customer segment and what application to take technology into for a business.