I had the privilege of hearing NCI’s SBIR guru Michael Weingarten speak at two local events recently. One was the NCI SBIR conference sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC), and the other was at a panel on Alternative Sources of Funding for Life Science Startups sponsored by Harvard innovation lab. Here are some of the highlights.
Weingarten is the Director for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Development Center at the National Cancer Institute. He leads a team of nine Program Directors that manage all aspects of the NCI SBIR/STTR programs that award over $110M in grants and contracts annually. NCI has been expanding its programs offered to small businesses in the cancer space. These programs include the SBIR Phase II Bridge Award and the annual investor program. The NCI has 13 new contract solicitations open, and NIH has recently extended the deadline for all contracts to Dec. 3. These contract solicitations are only offered once a year so be sure to read through the list of topics offered by all the agencies. And the next SBIR deadline is just around the corner – Dec. 5.
Some of the discussion centered around the new SBA rules that are being put into effect. These include an increase in the amount of money set aside for awards, placing caps on awards, and rules around eligibility, including allowing companies that are backed by venture capital to compete for SBIR dollars. Weingarten expects that implementation of at least some of the changes will occur by the time the next solicitation is issued.
Other discussion centered around the fact that more and more companies are adopting a virtual model in the early startup phase, and according to SBA rules, virtual companies are ineligible to receive SBIR funding. Weingarten had some tips for these types of applicant companies. It is acceptable to propose a PI and/or team members that have full-time jobs elsewhere but are poised to join the company upon funding. I would go further and suggest that applicant companies should include a letter of support from these personnel stating their commitment to the proposed project and to joining the company upon funding of the proposal, and state their relevant expertise and proposed contributions in the personal statement section of their biosketch. The biggest hurdle for a virtual company, however, is with the budgetary restrictions. SBIR rules state that only 33% of the budget can be used for outsourcing. However, Weingarten stated that work done by third parties such as CROs can be considered direct costs for the small business if the work is done for a quoted fee, with no breakdown or request for the indirect costs associated with the work. In addition, all the experimental design and data analysis must be performed by the small business, not by the CRO.
Weingarten stated that although it is largely solicitation-dependent, the success rate for contracts is almost twice that of SBIR grants (~20% vs. 10%, respectively). He also encouraged applicants to submit proposals to the STTR program, as the number of applicants is low, which makes success rates higher (also ~20%).
And lastly, when asked what a company should have in order to be successful in the SBIR program, Weingarten said: 1) a truly innovative technology that breaks new ground (not “me too” products) and has strong commercial potential, 2) a great team that includes collaborators with recognizable names, and 3) outside advice and help from a grant writer and/or other successful SBIR-funded entrepreneurs (see blog posts my “Tales From the Front” series, here and here).
On that note, feel free to contact us if you need any kind of assistance writing or editing your proposal, or if you have any questions about the SBIR program.