SBIR Pulse-The Keys to Commercialization Success
A Q&A with James Sweeney, the Air Force SBIR/STTR Commercialization Readiness Program Manager.
Sweeney leads the program effort to accelerate the transition of SBIR/STTR-developed technologies into real-world military and commercial applications. Commercialization brings down the cost of technology and makes it more readily available. This is also where the small business has the ability to grow and profit from its work, which generates a measurable impact on the national economy. Here, Sweeney shares some of his best tips for the small business community as well as an important new development related to Phase III awards.
Q: What’s the common thread you are seeing among companies that are successful when it comes to commercialization?
JS: When they land a Phase I (award), they’re already talking with the customer about the relevance of the product, the technology, the innovation and what the future prospects of the technology will be (as it relates to users, potential funding, etc.). They’re communicating all the time. The customer knows who they are.
Q: So there is a problem with companies getting an award, then working in a silo?
JS: Yes. A lot of times they think, ‘I’ll go do my work and show up at the end with my report and it will be great because I did exactly what I was told to do.’ The problem is, the Air Force has a tendency to change direction (based on the constantly changing environment for its needs). If you’re not communicating, they may have moved onto something else and your work may no longer be relevant. They will not buy your product, guaranteed. You’ve got to stay in touch. It’s very much a relationship-based thing.
Q: So the development work itself is likely a moving target?
JS: It is. And the reason we pursue work with the small businesses is that they are flexible, they’re agile. They can make those changes.
Q: What’s a common mistake that businesses in the program make on the way to commercialization?
JS: Starting a new business or a new product line, or working a new technology, is very dependent on cash. Companies that look at the SBIR/STTR Program as a primary funding source are going about it the wrong way. The program is just a lubricant, just a tool. It’s not a massive amount of money. Those companies that have been successful in the past have been the one’s that found a way to line up other funding sources. Maybe you could use core Air Force mission money. Maybe the funding could come from some other military services or federal agencies. We’re an assist, not the primary funding source for your business.
Q: There’s a brand new resource available for small business and acquisition professionals to make it easier to navigate the Phase III process. Why are Phase III awards so attractive and how do they impact commercialization?
JS: The Congressional language says, once you’ve completed a Phase I or Phase II, you’ve already satisfied the requirement for competition. You’re automatically covered and the justification and authorization, also known as a J&A, required to get a sole source award makes it quite simple for the Air Force to buy under a Phase III. Also, any agency can buy from that company, not just the Air Force. The program office just released a new Phase III guide to simplify the process. It’s very user friendly.
To download the new Air Force SBIR/STTR Program Phase III Desk Reference, click here: https://www.afsbirsttr.com/Publications/Documents/2016_SBIR_STTR_Phase_III_Desk_Reference.pdf.