Apollo astronaut Frank Borman once said, "Exploration is the essence of the human spirit." At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, the human spirit gets a lot of exercise. For example, three SBIR companies supplied technology for the Phoenix Lander mission. The Phoenix mission landed in the Mars arctic region where the Mars Odyssey spacecraft previously identified the presence of water. A small business, Honeybee Robotics, supplied the icy soil acquisition device; another, Yardney Technical Products provided lithium-ion batteries; and Starsys Research, now part of SpaceDev, provided key elements of the wet chemistry laboratory. Looking to the future, “the human soul starved for a challenge” will find opportunities on missions to explore deep space with the Space Launch System, with Orion, and many other missions.
NASA’s combined annual SBIR/STTR budget is between $160 and $190 million dollars a year. The topics and subtopics support the needs of the four NASA Mission Directorates (MD) – these are the Aeronautics Research; the Human Exploration and Operations; the Science; and the Space Technology Mission Directorates. The topics and subtopics found in the NASA SBIR and STTR solicitations are defined by the four mission directorates, in combination with the ten NASA centers.
NASA releases SBIR and STTR topics once a year, usually in mid-November in one general solicitation. Phase I proposals are due in late January/early February. The maximum value of Phase I contracts for either SBIR or STTR awards is $125,000. The period of performance for Phase I SBIR awards is 6 months, while the STTR Phase I award period is 12 months. Phase II contracts are for up to $750,000 and have a maximum period of performance of 24 months. The Phase II dollar amount and the period of performance are identical for both SBIR and STTR awards.
In each solicitation there are a wide variety of topics and subtopics organized by Focus Areas intended to help proposers understand NASA’s needs. The most frequently occurring topics in the FY17 solicitation were mapped to the following Focus Areas: Power and Energy Storage; Communications and Navigation; Life Support and Habitation Systems; Sensors, Detectors and Instruments; Spacecraft and Platform Subsystems - to name a few. Each topic in the SBIR/STTR solicitation involves a Lead center and one or more other centers, listed as participating centers. All of the 10 Field Centers participate in the SBIR solicitation. Each center acts as a lead for some topics and as the participating center for others.
The accompanying graphic shows the progression of technology development from the time of an SBIR/STTR award to commercialization or infusion. NASA, by the way, has always had a strong interest in dual–use applications of NASA-funded technologies. When a NASA funded project is successful in the commercial sector it is said to be commercialized, while NASA uses the term “infusion” to indicate the adoption of a technology by NASA in one or more of its Mission Directorates.
Post Phase II, companies become eligible for several funding opportunities. Phase II-E or Extended awards are meant to encourage the advancement of innovations developed under Phase II. Firms must secure an external investor either from a non-SBIR/STTR source within NASA or from a source external to NASA. The SBIR/STTR contribution will be up to $125,000 or up to $375,000 depending upon the solicitation year in which the original award was made. This award is a one-to-one match. The period of additional performance for a Phase II-Extended award is six to twelve months. The Phase II Extended program replaces the Phase II Enhancement and Phase II-X programs, which are only available for awardees from FY 2015 Phase II SBIR solicitation
NASA also has a Civilian Commercialization Readiness Pilot Program or CCRPP to advance innovative technologies with high potential for commercial impact. This program is available to small businesses that have completed an SBIR/STTR award from ANY federal agency from solicitations issued from 2010 through 2014. The technology proposed for advancement toward commercialization should have a strong relevance to NASA’s missions, as well as a strong potential use by NASA and/or market outside of NASA beyond the CCRPP investment. This program provides a one-to-one match of SBIR/STTR funds to NON-SBIR/STTR funds with a maximum award of $2 million dollars.
NASA has also partnered with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide the I-Corps program. This program offers training to select companies on technology commercialization strategies. Selected firms receive a training grant of $50,000 for the full I-Corps program for STTR firms and up to $35,000 for the shortened version for SBIR firms. Under the program, awardees must conduct up to 100 interviews with potential customer to better understand the commercial potential of the opportunity.
With this as background, let’s consider the likelihood of winning a NASA SBIR or STTR award. This figure shows the number of proposals received by NASA annually over a period of seven years. Also depicted is the number of Phase I awards made during that period. The range varies in recent years from 15-27%, meaning that of the proposals received, 15 to 27% will win a Phase I award, depending upon the available funding.
As Carl Sagan said “ Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” If you are interested in learning more about the “incredible unknown”, be sure to explore the NASA SBIR/STTR website, as well as NASA’s Technology Area roadmaps. Videos related to the Space Launch System, Orion, and Mars exploration are listed under Tools within this tutorial.
Videos to help you learn about some of the NASA Commands that sponsor SBIR and STTR topics