Maryann Feldman, an official helping to lead a congressionally-mandated effort to evaluate the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, said at a Feb. 5 House Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee hearing that the first SBIR assessment will be released in March.

Evaluation of those programs is being undertaken by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which are private, nonprofit institutions that provide policy and other expert advice in their areas of expertise.  Feldman, a professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is co-chairing the Department of Energy (DoE) evaluation effort.

Testifying at a Research and Technology Subcommittee hearing, Feldman declined to preview any results from the first assessment, but did say the report will focus on SBIR programs led by DoE.

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Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the full committee, said that evaluation of SBIR and STTR projects is imperative to the program’s success.

“There is no one size fits all assessment of SBIR because each agency implements a unique program. And Congress has recognized the need to provide agencies the flexibility to do so. Each agency has its own mission and research needs,” she said. “However, the overarching goals are constant across the agencies, and Congress requires the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to review these programs every four years with those goals in mind.”

At the National Science Foundation (NSF), which focuses on leveraging technological opportunities with SBIR, changes have already been made to the program based on internal assessments. Dawn Tilbury, assistant director of NSF’s Directorate of Engineering, shared that the agency is trying to streamline how small businesses interact with the program.

For example, NSF changed the program to allow small businesses to submit briefer pitches instead of full proposals for review, which helps businesses that aren’t sure if they qualify for funding.

Tilbury also described how SBIR and STTR fuel nationwide innovation.

“At NSF, we fund small businesses to try and take the technological risk out of their ideas. These are the high-tech companies. This is the stage before venture capital has an appetite to come in … They need this SBIR or STTR funding to get over that technological risk,” she explained.

Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) shared the economic impact of SBIR and STTR in her state alone.

“Since the creation of these programs, small businesses in Michigan have leveraged $1.2 billion in funds to develop an amazing array of new technologies while creating jobs and driving economic growth in our region,” she said.

Programs like SBIR and STTR can also help small business prioritize cybersecurity early on, Rep. Stevens added. A bill cosponsored by Stevens in July 2019, the SBIR and STTR Improvements Act of 2019, would further this by encouraging agencies to prioritize funding for small manufacturers and cybersecurity firms.

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Katie Malone
Katie Malone
Katie Malone is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.