The Department of Education’s SBIR program is offered through its research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences. ED/ IES SBIR funds small businesses to conduct R&D of commercially viable education technology products and games for students, teachers, or administrators in regular or special education. One way to introduce you to the interests of this program is to share some of the products and games that the ED/IES program has funded in the past. (Note that in the links section of this Tutorial, you will find access to a video library of numerous education technology products that have been developed through the ED/IES SBIR program.)
In “Reach for the Sun” by Filament Games, students grow a virtual seed into a full sunflower plant. The students learn about plant biology and photosynthesis during the course of the game. “Addimal Adventure,” developed by Teachley, is a learning adventure app in which first to third grade students learn single digit addition. Addimal Adventure won an Apple Design award for its innovation in 2014. Another product developed with SBIR funding from the Department of Education is called “Happy Atoms.” This is a chemistry-learning tool designed to teach molecular modeling in chemistry. Happy Atoms pairs physical atom models with an interactive digital app. Students can build molecules with the magnetic modeling set, take a picture of what they’ve built with the app, and immediately discover molecular information and real-world applications through free-play and guided activities. A final example is “Zoo-U,” a virtual environment where students are presented with social scenarios in which they must use their social skills to navigate each situation. The answers that students provide generate reports that guidance counselors and teachers can view and which draw attention to students that may need more assistance.
The ED/IES SBIR program has one solicitation a year, usually released in late Fall. Phase I awards are for up to 8 months in duration in amounts up to $200,000. Phase II awards are up to two years in duration - in amounts up to $900,000. ED/IES SBIR program typically receives far more proposals than it can fund. On average the program makes 10 Phase I awards and 5 Phase II awards per year. Dr. Metz, the SBIR Program Manager, is also the point of contact for the Research Grants Program at IES, which provides between $1.4M and $3.3M for R&D evaluation of interventions. This program is also one that interested parties should consider. For more information, see ies.ed.gov/funding.
So what does it take to be a winning applicant with the ED/IES SBIR program? You must start with a strong concept with a clear “differentiator,” or something that makes the proposed product innovative and unique both technologically and as an academic or school-based intervention. As this is a research program, the applicant must clearly articulate the theoretical and empirical foundation for their work. The proposal must include a work plan that demonstrates the viability of completing what has been proposed within the Phase I budget. Prior to a proposal the applicant might gather feedback iteratively and use that information to refine the concept. In the Phase I proposal the applicant will include a small pilot in Phase I and explain how you will expand the research to a larger population in Phase II. Being a research-based program, many awardees submit their results to peer-refereed academic journals.
The team and commercialization strategies are also very important. For applications one needs a team of three to five people, with individuals that can address the educational needs, the content, the technology, the program management, and the business aspects of the opportunity. The most common ways to bring ED/IES SBIR support products to market include app stores, direct sales, licensing agreements, venture capital funding, and acquisition.
In recent years products supported by the ED/IES SBIR program have been used in tens of thousands of schools and by millions of students. Many of the products have won prestigious industry awards for innovation – such as from the Digital Innovation in Learning awards; the National STEM Video Game Challenge; and awards offered by the Software and Information Industry Association.