Bill Gates has said, “The way you get innovation is you fund research.”
When you hear “research funding,” do you think of private funding? Venture capital? Government grants? If the first thing that popped into your mind was “government grants,” you are not alone. When we asked this question through a poll on LinkedIn, 88 percent of participants (research professionals) chose government funding. This funding is non-dilutive (no equity is acquired in your company), and you do not have to pay the money back. In 2018, $127.3B was awarded in federal research grants. If you are new to this game, the number of government funding resources can be bewildering. This article will be a compass to help you navigate federal research grants.
In this article, we will explore funding programs for all types of industry research and development (R&D) work, including basic research, applied research, and experimental development. We will cover national and international funding resources and highlight research funding opportunities provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Federal grants for industry
Throughout the year, government departments, such as the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy, among others, put out funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) for technologies requiring all types of R&D work.
When seeking out appropriate FOAs, Dr. Gregory Fridman, who raised over $11M in grants as a professor at Drexel University and is CEO of AAPlasma, LLC, considers the question, “Where would our technology create the greatest benefit to taxpayers for their money?” This question is especially important for companies that have platform technologies. In the case of AAPlasma, they use government funds to deploy cold plasma platform technology to solve problems, ranging from cleaning space probes for NASA to the disinfection of personal protective equipment during COVID-19.
An excellent place to search for FOAs is grants.gov. Here are some tips to navigate this website:
- Tip #1: Use eligibility filters to narrow down thousands of opportunities to the ones you qualify for.
- Tip #2: Sign up for the grants.gov newsletter and follow them on social media.
- Tip #3: Explore their tutorials and blogs to learn more about the federal grant system, including commonly used terminology and grant writing tips.
International R&D grants
International R&D grants are an additional path to nondilutive funding. International R&D grants are available by registering your company in the country of choice or through collaborations. Explore the European Union Research and Innovation program Horizon 2020 and Innovation Canada Digital Platform for more possibilities.
NSF funding opportunities
Idea funding (funding for startups at the inception point)
America’s Seed Fund, powered by the NSF, also known as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program funds early-stage research and development (R&D) work at roughly 400 companies each year, investing up to $1.75M per company. Most of the companies are startups with less than five employees and no funding from other agencies. “NSF SBIR/ STTR is looking for disruptive (high-risk/high-gain) technologies at the point of inception that will change the way we think about an industry,” says Dr. Elizabeth Mirowski, one of 11 NSF SBIR/STTR program directors. The main difference between the SBIR and STTR streams is that STTR requires a partnership between a small business and a US non-profit research institution. A unique feature of the NSF SBIR/STTR program is that there are no set topic areas or Request for Application (RFA) required. The program is open to different areas of technology, from biotechnology to artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, and beyond.
Writing a Grant Proposal
There are two approaches to writing a proposal: do it yourself or hire outside help. The latter might be a freelance grant writer or a grant writing company. Freelancer’s services are usually less expensive, but in both cases, look for writers with a successful track record and appropriate credentials. A PhD is the industry standard. When it comes to prices, the fees are either fixed or based on contingency.
The SBIR/STTR application starts with a short Project Pitch (less than three pages). The pitch includes a synopsis of your technical innovation, R&D work, market potential and challenges, and the team behind it. Mirowski recommends “bringing context to your innovation: you need to clearly communicate how your technology is unique and how it compares to others.” If your technology is a good fit for the program, within three weeks, you will receive an invitation to submit a full proposal. What are the key three elements of a successful SBIR/STTR proposal? “[A] clearly laid out plan, measurable milestones, [and] identified risks and mitigation strategies,” says Mirowski. If your submission is successful, you can receive up to $256K for a six-month (SBIR)/one-year project (STTR) in Phase I. One of the unique features of Phase I is the Boot Camp, where you have an opportunity to identify your product market fit through interviews with potential customers and mentorship. If you are awarded a Phase I, you are eligible for Phase II. In Phase II, you can receive up to $1M for a two-year commercialization project. Companies are also eligible to apply for additional funding up to $500K in Phase II (called Phase IIB) to speed commercialization.
Although this section focuses on SBIR funding provided by the NSF, there are 10 other government agencies that offer SBIR programs—their details can be found at sbir.gov.
Funding for academic spin-off companies
Another area of industry research is the commercialization of academic innovation. But not all academic research can be brought to market. Mirowski clarifies: “Basic research has a very long commercialization pathway compared to applied research.” NSF supports the commercialization of applied academic research through Partnerships for Innovation (PFI), where you can receive funding to develop a proof-of-concept or prototype from research funded by the NSF.
Funding for research collaborations
If you have a project that requires basic research that is beyond your company’s current scope, consider partnering with a research institution.
One way to create partnerships with academia is through the Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC) program. As an industry member, you can purchase a membership in the center of choice and then access the center’s resources to perform basic research. You also gain royalty-free, non-exclusive licenses on intellectual property produced in the center.
Another way is to apply for a joint grant proposal to the NSF and/or request supplemental research funding to an existing NSF-funded award through a proposal called Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI).
Industry-academic partnerships are incredibly beneficial. As an industry partner, you gain access to expertise, workforce, and research infrastructure, all at a fraction of what it costs to set up and maintain in-house.
Funding for workforce training
Research grants now include funding for innovation and the people behind the innovation. If you have worked on an NSF research grant, you may be eligible to receive entrepreneurial training through the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program.
NSF also recently launched a new program called NSF INTERN, which supports graduate students working on NSF grants to pursue six- to 12-month internships in industry.
You can sign up to receive more information about NSF funding opportunities on their website.
Each year, there are billions of dollars in government funding for all stages of research and development. According to Mirowski, one of the keys to navigating the vast number of research grants is asking yourself, “Where does my technology fit in?” In this article, we have looked at funding opportunities from concept to market, nationally and internationally, as well as academic partnerships. While not exhaustive, we hope it will assist you in navigating your funding journey.