Federal laboratories, sometime called national laboratories, can play an important role in an SBIR or STTR project. In this tutorial, we will focus upon a subset of the federal labs referred to as Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, or FFRDCs. While there are over 250 federal laboratories, there are only about 40 FFRDCs. The distinguishing feature of an FFRDC is that it is operated or managed by a contractor, rather than by the federal government. For example, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is an FFRDC owned and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), but managed by Battelle Memorial Institute.
Let's consider how you might approach an FFRDC about participating in your firm's SBIR/STTR proposal. Let's assume that you don't have any contacts within any of the federal labs. Where might you begin? Start by talking with your peers. Ask if any of them have had experience working with an FFRDC and if yes, ask for the name(s) of the specific researcher with whom they worked. If this approach doesn't yield any names, then contact the Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) and ask for help identifying an FFRDC that might be a good subcontractor on your project.
When contacting an FFRDC, there are several important things to keep in mind.
- First, whatever work they agree to do for you on an SBIR/STTR project may be given secondary priority to their primary mission and responsibilities. However, you will more than likely be treated well; just realize that they are in business to serve the federal government's primary interests.
- Second, the amount of SBIR/STTR funding that you can subcontract to an FFRDC is not going to be a significant incentive to the laboratory. Many FFRDCs have billion dollar annual budgets, so 30% to 60% of a $150,000 Phase I project is not going to command much attention.
- Third, there may be other reasons that an FFRDC may want to work with you on an SBIR/STTR project. It may give the laboratory an opportunity to work with another agency or program in the federal government to which they otherwise would not have access. Also, an FFRDC may have a policy that encourages its staff to work with industry and/or small entities. Working with you will then help advance this goal.
- Finally, it will be easier to work with an FFRDC if it has previously served as a research institution or subcontractor on an SBIR or STTR proposal. With an experienced FFRDC, you will not be setting a new precedent or tilling new ground, so the contractual process should go faster. Prior experience also signals that the FFRDC will have a better grasp of the objectives, time frame, and desired outcomes of SBIR/STTR projects.
Once you have found an FFRDC with which you want to work, you will need to discuss what kind of arrangement is best for your situation. The following is a short list of the more common mechanisms that FFRDCs may use.
- The first is a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), which is described by the Federal Laboratory Consortium as "a principal mechanism used by federal laboratories to engage in collaborative efforts with non-federal partners." The FLC states that CRADAs are a "relatively easy mechanism to implement," and agencies like the Department of Energy have modular CRADA agreements that can expedite creation and approval. The FLC claims that CRADAs are "intended to take into account the needs and desires of private industry when commercializing a product," so they will often be most appropriate for an FFRDC subcontracting to an SBIR/STTR applicant. Note that intellectual property and data rights will be shared between you and the FFRDC under a CRADA, subject to the terms of the agreement.
- A second mechanism is a Strategic Partnership Project (SPP). Strategic Partnership Projects (SPP) are available through the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. This is defined as research/work undertaken by a national laboratory or research facility for a client other than the Department of Energy or the Department of Homeland Security. The client will pay their full cost. Ownership of the intellectual property is dependent upon the source of funding.
- A third mechanism is a User Facility Agreement. As indicated earlier, some FFRDCs, such as Idaho National Laboratory, have unique facilities and equipment that can be made available to nonfederal parties like SBIR/STTR applicants. You will pay the full cost of using such resources (including the cost of FFRDC staff to operate them), but you will retain intellectual property created.
- A fourth mechanism is a Licensing Agreement. This is a mechanism used for out-licensing intellectual property belonging to an FFRDC to another entity such as an SBIR/STTR applicant. The license may be included as part of a CRADA. Out-licensing is used in special "Technology Transfer Opportunities" sections of various SBIR/STTR programs including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
- The fifth mechanism for working with an FFRDC is referred to as Technical Assistance (TA). Some FFRDCs can provide limited technical assistance at little or no cost to the recipient. Examples of TAs include solving a specific problem or improving a process or product.
- Experimentation with new methods of collaboration include the Agreement for Commercializing Technology (ACT) and the Small Business Vouchers - both implemented by the Department of Energy.
Your early communication with the FFRDC will provide you with considerable information that will assist you in making a decision as to whether or not you wish to include an FFRDC in your SBIR/STTR proposal. Rather than waiting until a proposal is released before initiating a relationship with an FFRDC, it may be useful to attend the annual Federal Laboratory Consortium conference where you can begin to network and develop relationships.