Committee on Capitalizing on Science, Technology, and Innovation:
An Assessment of the Small Business Innovation Research Program—
Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy
Policy and Global Affairs
February 7th, 2013
Dr. Alison Brown described the challenges that she faced as a female entrepreneur, and described the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program as critical to the development of her company.
Dr. Brown noted the importance of partnering with larger companies in the defense space and urged greater incentives for prime contractors to outsource to small companies and to protect small companies' intellectual property.
The next speaker, Alison Brown, CEO of NAVSYS, said the SBIR program was pivotal to incubating her company, which she co-founded in 1986 after leaving a job in California to join her husband in a move to Colorado for his job teaching at the Air Force Academy. After receiving her PhD, Dr. Brown worked on global positioning systems (GPS), then a new satellite technology. The company’s first SBIR award in 1988 enabled it to build the GPS Translator. NAVSYS won subsequent SBIR awards by acknowledging the need to partner with larger companies to commercialize innovations in transition to Phase III. Such partnerships are a necessity for startups, she said, because only large companies can bid for defense contracts.
Dr. Brown said that NAVSYS technology has provided new capabilities and lower costs for the Department of Defense (DoD). The NAVSYS Jamming Detection and Location Phase III SBIR project, for example, helps solve the problem of GPS jamming by the enemy. The DoD program officer wanted new anti-jamming technology, and NAVSYS offered a cheaper, more effective crowdsourcing solution than the DoD had originally contemplated, said Dr. Brown. The NAVSYS system receives information from GPS receivers in the field and sensors already carried by soldiers to identify jamming incidents. By downloading client software on their computers, any government agency can access this information royaltyfree via a government computer network. Dr. Brown described that the system acquired hundreds of users within 2 years and is now a program of record because of the high number of users.
To solve another urgent military need, said Dr. Brown, NAVSYS provided the Air Force with a solution called the Talon NAMATH. To contain collateral damage, the Air Force needed technology to aim small bombs developed for the Iraq War. Using knowledge from technology that it developed for the Federal Aviation Administration, NAVSYS created a GPS precision solution that did not require expensive equipment on the ground. Likewise, NAVSYS’s precision targeting technology, developed mostly with SBIR funds, transitioned into FLIR Systems’ Star SAFIRE® product providing the U.S. military with stable, GPSenabled, high-accuracy pointing for surveillance using high-precision electronic sensors.
Dr. Brown highlighted a major challenge for defense technology startups: the SBIR program supports the development of technology to the DoD’s Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6, but DoD is not interested in funding companies until they reach TRL8. Specifically, Dr. Brown identified the following issues:
DoD prefers to deal with its own prime contractors and does not fund SBIR awardees to a stage where they can enter DoD programs.
Prime contractors lack incentives to outsource to would-be competitors, such as SBIR awardees.
DoD recognizes neither the return on investment it gets from small business innovation nor the missed opportunity when small businesses cannot transition to Phase III.
Lack of enforcement of SBIR policies rewards “bad practices” discouraging SBIR involvement.
Dr. Brown suggested legislative incentives to encourage large companies to outsource to small companies and to protect small companies’ intellectual property. “If you just encourage small businesses to get Phase I and II [awards], the program is broken,” she said. “That’s not what the SBIR is about; there’s no commercialization.” If the government cannot commercialize the product, then agencies miss an opportunity to reap a return on investment, she said.