It’s not every day you get the opportunity to learn the dos and don’ts of Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) grant writing from a nationally renowned expert in the field. On Tuesday, May 21, 60+ researchers from Vanderbilt, TSU, MTSU, Lipscomb University, Tennessee Tech, and other Nashville area institutions and businesses got just that. Launch Tennessee, a public-private partnership focused on supporting the development of high-growth companies in Tennessee, recruited Mark Henry, founder of Grow Emerging Companies, to the Volunteer state to share insight into the government funding program.
Henry opened the day by sharing bits of his background, primarily accounts from his years at Bend Research in Oregon, a leader in drug delivery technologies that excelled at winning SBIR/STTR funding in the 80s and 90s. Henry now serves as an SBIR/STTR consultant for small business owners and researchers, a program he says offers a range of opportunities to academic researchers. Henry equated this type of grant writing somewhat jokingly to writing “science and business fiction.” Henry told the group that you have to have new science and you have to have a solid business plan with clear, realistic and achievable metrics.
“If the science has already been done, don’t propose it,” Henry said. “It has to be something new.” But Henry said it’s more than just new science. The technology has to be marketable and, ideally, it will have a very positive societal impact.
Henry led the crowd through two and a half hours of instruction. He discussed the nuts and bolts of the SBIR/STTR programs, conveyed the necessity of having a strong business and commercialization plan, discussed the different phases of funding and gave pointers that will help researchers write strong proposals.
“Language is key,” Henry said. He explained that you don’t want to undersell the risk or overstate the reward; these funding programs exist to find high-risk, high-reward technology.
Henry stopped the presentation several times to answer participant questions. After back-to-back answers of “it depends,” the crowd caught on. In addition to a sound commercialization plan, he said that SBIR/STTR funding depends on the “what if” factor – if awarded this money, what will the impact be? It depends on the inventor and business team and their level of engagement and commitment. It depends on the team of reviewers and how they interpret the proposals. The answers really just depend on each situation.
At the end of the day, Henry says SBIR/STTR grants can be a good funding source for academic researchers. SBIR grants total about $2.5 billion per year while STTR grants total approximately $300 million annually. The key, he says, to receiving this type of funding is selling your science and selling your business.
“All I’ve been doing for 32 years is selling science and business fiction to the government,” Henry said. We have to tell a compelling story that stands out from 10 others in a phase I to get funded.”