SBIR Pulse-Begin With the End in Mind
By David Shahady, Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program Manager
With the beginning of the New Year, I have received considerable advice from self-proclaimed change experts on how to make 2016 my best year yet. During one of these pep talks someone mentioned the famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Life is a journey, not a destination." Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transition (STTR) efforts are a technical innovation journey, but we must not forget that the ultimate destination is to deliver a product to a customer. Although creativity and breakthrough ideas are the cornerstones of good research, solid commercialization at the end of the SBIR/STTR process is still the goal. The government's intention is to maximize return on its investment. I think it is important to remind ourselves to work each phase of the SBIR/STTR process with the end in mind.
In Phase I, small businesses create a concept. Small businesses should strive to develop a solution concept that addresses a problem. This means not only looking at the technical aspects, but examining the problem space and understanding the customer who will use the product. Who are they? What work do they do? Where do they work? How do they work? When is their work done? The answers to these questions build a foundation for developing a solution that has the potential to be used by the customer. It is essential that small businesses use the Phase I opportunity to communicate the "realm of the possible" with potential customers in order to build a commercialization strategy. The purpose of a Phase I effort is to describe viable solution for a problem, and a well thought-out plan to deliver that solution to potential customers.
Phase II is taking the solution concept and demonstrating how it solves the problem. While the technical aspects of the Phase II effort are crucial, it is equally important to manage expectations and plan the work effort accordingly. There is a finite amount of resources and those must be balanced across the cost, schedule, and performance objectives. The end goal is to conduct a solution demonstration that will spark interest and generate enthusiasm for further investment by customers. Demonstrating science and technology in the laboratory is satisfactory but the best demonstrations are performed in a real-world environment. Over the course of Phase II, small businesses should continually conduct miniature demonstrations to benchmark their progress, and make adjustments to the science and technology strategy. The destination of a Phase II effort is a demonstration that allows potential customers to visualize the solution and how it will address the problem.
Phase II+ is focused on maturing the work into a product that can be brought to market. Again, while scientific and technical achievements are noteworthy, it is a final deliverable product that ultimately needs to be provided to customers. This is where the commercialization strategy is crucial. Small businesses need to use the SBIR/STTR Phase II+ funding to address specific improvements desired by potential customers. During SBIR/STTR Phase II+ small businesses should also be looking for additional outside investors that will help bring their product into Phase III. The destination of a Phase II+ effort is a base product that warrants additional investment or can be purchased outright.
Although science and technology play an essential role throughout the SBIR/STTR phases, alignment with end customers and commercialization efforts are the true drivers of eventual success. Each phase of the SBIR/STTR process has a specific goal, and we need to be reminded to use the opportunities and resources provided (funding, connections, etc.) to achieve those goals without solely focusing on the technical aspects of the project. The SBIR/STTR journey is full of exciting technological innovations, but the delivery of the product to customers is the ultimate destination, and the true measure of success.