Understand the Review Process
The “SBIR Program” is not one thing. Each government department (NSF, DoD, NIH, NASA, etc.) has broad latitude in structuring its own version of an SBIR program. Furthermore, within large departments like DoD, each agency (Army, Navy, etc.) has its own rules. Even within an agency there are idiosyncrasies in how the proposals are reviewed, meaning that NAVAIR has different internal policies from NAVSEA. Dan was kind enough to share some insights into how NAVAIR reviews topics, and I’ve distilled those into three points.
- NAVAIR actively seeks to fund research on each topic. Prior to posting its solicitation for proposals, NAVAIR ranks and vets the topics. The final solicitation only includes topics for which there is adequate funding. The result is an “implicit commitment” by the Navy to support every topic. Exceptions occur, of course, and sometimes the reviewers rank all the proposals poorly, in which case no proposals are funded. In general, though, NAVAIR does not post “dud” topics.
- The TPOC leads the review process. The TPOC selects other members of the review committee from people within the government (not necessarily NAVAIR or even Navy). This is quite different from departments like NSF or NIH, which follow a more academic “peer-review” model.
- NAVAIR prefers to fund 2 or 3 different approaches during Phase I. These different approaches compete during Phase I. Usually only one approach is awarded a Phase II, unless the approaches end up solving complementary aspects of the problem. In that case, the TPOC might be able to argue that two Phase II awards should be made.
Entering “personal opinion” mode (i.e., this is the opinion of Damon W. Diehl and is not approved or endorsed by the Navy)
These three points capture what I admire most about NAVAIR’s implementation of the SBIR program. Eliminating “dud” topics at the outset easily saves small businesses millions of dollars of wasted effort every single year. Letting the TPOCs lead the review process ensures that the topics that win are aligned to the technical challenges the TPOCs are facing. Funding multiple Phase I topics maximizes competition between technical approaches and ensures that every small business puts in its best efforts during Phase I, as Phase II funding is not assured. Together these three features of the NAVAIR SBIR program have fostered technological gains that have had very broad impacts both on defense and on the economy.
That wraps up this series. My apologies for the long delay in updates. I have an embarrassingly long queue of backlogged posts (including a new DoD SBIR win for one of my clients!), and I hope to churn those out rapidly.