Contributed by Skip Rung, President and Executive Director, Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute
In December 2010, I spoke at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Nanotechnology Grantees conference in Washington, DC about ONAMI’s facility and gap funding programs in support of commercializing research. There I was introduced by Greg Rorrer (head of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at OSU, then an NSF program director) to one of his colleagues, Grace Wang, a new program director for the NSF SBIR/STTR (Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer) program.
I had had one previous experience reviewing proposals for another NSF SBIR program director, and I wasn’t impressed with the market prospects or, frankly, commercialization intent of what I saw. The familiar accusation that SBIR grants mainly funded “grant mill” companies and thinly disguised extensions of university faculty labs seemed true. I made some mention of this to Grace, who immediately bristled – she said it wasn’t like that at all, that NSF had asked VCs what they should look for in proposals, that NSF had done exactly what they recommended, and that I should sign up to be a reviewer for her program to see for myself.
I did, and Grace was absolutely right. The NSF SBIR Phase II review process involves equal numbers of technical (practicing scientists) and commercial (business people) reviewers with relevant domain experience. The commercial reviewers are asked (VC-like) to assess market opportunity, management team strength, technology/product competitiveness and implementation plan quality. This process works, and the best proposals –with both outstanding technology and business intent true to the commercialization purpose of the program – get funded.
It gets better. Grace Wang is now the head of all NSF Industrial Innovation and Partnerships programs (including SBIR/STTR) and is building a team of program directors that actively seeks the best entrepreneurs and measures (through laborious company follow-up) success in terms of capital funding, time to product revenue and economic impact. She is also engaging an Advisory Committee of which I am proud to be a member.
I believe this is the national model for non-dilutive pre-seed stage company funding, and that the results – already good – are going to be dramatic. If you are building a world-changing company around a significant technical advance, check it out: http://www.nsf.gov/eng/iip/sbir/index.jsp