Funding Outside the Box

Your new discovery has implications for breast cancer therapy. Who funds you, the National Cancer Institute (NCI)? Nope: The U.S. Army. You’ve just developed a swift-growing tree that drinks up metals in the soil as if they were lemonade in July, and it could be the next killer app for cleaning up Superfund sites. Who cut the R&D checks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)? Uh-uh: The U.S. Air Force. A new airborne chemical sensor: EPA? The Department of Energy? Homeland Security? No: It owes its existence to the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Why be normal? Securing funding is difficult, time-consuming, and unpredictable, especially in an election year. Who knows how next year’s president’s policies will impact the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other stalwarts of scientific funding? The outlook right now isn’t good. When a well dries up, it’s time to drill a new one. It behooves anyone to look for money wherever it can be found.

By all means, go to the obvious sources. If you’re a medical researcher, hit up NIH. If you’re an engineer, knock on DOE’s door or NSF’s. But when you’ve exhausted your primary sources, consider this: Pots of gold are available throughout the federal government and the private sector, often where you’d least expect to find them. For example, the U.S. Army–through its Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs–trails only NCI as the leading funder of breast cancer research in the U.S. government. Who knew?

Finding Money Plenty

So how do you go about finding these hidden sources? Start with networking. See all those related research articles piling up on your desk? Check the acknowledgment section to see who is funding those projects, says Janet Rasey, director of research funding services at the University of Washington.

Then, put the OSP to work for you. OSPs exist to help you secure funding, so use them. Make an appointment and see what services they’re able to offer. “It always works out better if you aren’t trying to do things all on your own,” says Susan Eckert, associate dean for finance in Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and another Next Wave contributor.

And while you’re at it, consider making contact even at the obvious funding agencies, if you haven’t already. NIH, for example, is a wildly diverse place, so try to find a friendly guide. NIH program officers are there to help, says Dennis Glanzman, chief of theoretical and computational neuroscience at the National Institute for Mental Health. “Tell us what you’re interested in or send a 1- to 2-page white paper. We can usually find the right person for you [to talk to]. So many people seem to be afraid of NIH as a black box, so they don’t even try” to inquire, he says.

Your Lab is a Small Business

Of all the odd places you’ve looked for funding, I bet SBA is one you hadn’t thought of. SBA does not directly fund research, but a 1982 SBA mandate has made available hundreds of millions of dollars through participating government agencies (in 2001, total grants exceeded $78 million). Every government agency with an external R&D budget of at least $100 million is required to participate in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. With 11 participating agencies (not including the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, which participate under a different set of rules), this adds up to quite a bit of money.

And before you object that you’re not in business, keep in mind a nice little caveat in the SBIR mechanism: You do not need to be in business to apply. Though SBIR grants require you to be employed by a small business at the time the award is made, with STTR grants you can keep your day job, as long as you are collaborating with a small business. STTR rules require that 40% of the research work has to be done by the business. If you have an idea with true potential, finding a young technology company that’s willing to take some government money shouldn’t be that hard.

Here’s how it works. A participating agency with a specific need issues an SBIR or STTR solicitation describing it. If you find something you think you can develop, you apply.

Phase I typically nets you fewer than $100,000 for a short-term proof-of-concept study. If you get invited to apply for phase II, you’re eligible for $450,000 to $750,000 over a 2-year period, at which point you are expected to develop the technology for commercialization. Phase III “is nirvana,” says Morgan Allyn, director of strategic initiatives for Springboard Enterprises in Washington, D.C., which helps women entrepreneurs secure equity financing. That’s because the true boon of SBIR is that once you’ve developed the technology, you are the government’s exclusive provider for as long as you remain in control of it. That sensor you develop for the Air Force might just be bought by the other armed forces as well.

Several million- and billion-dollar companies owe their starts to SBIR grants, according to Allyn. “It gave them the edge. It put a stamp of approval that they knew how to do R&D, and you get easier access to other federal contracts. And the piece that trumps it all is, the moment you win a phase I SBIR contract you are immediately eligible to be the sole source provider.”

The first step Allyn recommends is heading to SBIR World, which provides a searchable database of SBIR announcements both past and present. Plugging in a variety of keywords related to your work may produce some surprises. Even if you have no intention of applying for an SBIR grant, it might be a useful exercise. All of these agencies have external R&D of at least $100 million, so there is money to go after even through more traditional avenues.

So go crazy, there and elsewhere. Surf the NSF Web site, NIH’s CRISP database, GrantsNet, the DOE Office of Science, and any other potential sponsors you can think of. Finally, visit Next Wave’s extensive list of federal research-funding agencies. Surf using keywords only tangentially related to your own subject, and see what comes up. It may or not yield an unexpected windfall, but such explorations are an interesting exercise. Even better: Reading about other’s research can always inspire new ideas for your own.

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