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Is an SBIR/STTR focus right for your women faculty?

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: June 27th, 2018

Over the past few years, universities often have turned to SBIR/STTR funding to help launch start-ups. However, women entrepreneurs typically haven’t received a big slice of that funding pie. For example, women-owned organizations made 471 Phase I SBIR applications, winning 59 awards totaling $13.9 million in funding, for fiscal year 2017, according to SBIR/STTR award data. In comparison, there were 3,883 Phase I SBIR applications, 555 awards, and $131.6 million awarded to all organizations for FY 2017.

Recognizing that not enough women apply for or receive SBIRs/STTRs, in 2015 the National Science Foundation began awarding a handful of Advancing Women And underRrepresented Entrepreneurs (AWARE) grants to encourage women to become entrepreneurs and to increase their success competing for SBIR/STTR grants.

While NSF hasn’t released any data tying AWARE to increased success rates among women, “following the development of AWARE, 50 Fellows — 30% of whom are women — are now supported as part of the [Phase II] SBIR-STTR Post Doc Program,” said France A. Córdova, PhD, NSF director, at last year’s American Society for Engineering Education conference.

With the competition for SBIR/STTR funds at full throttle nationwide, universities may want to beef up their existing SBIR/STTR programming to better address women’s needs or to launch new SBIR/STTR programming as part of their women’s outreach initiatives.

The EnterpriseWorks incubator at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Research Park, the Office of Technology Management, and the Technology Entrepreneur Center in the College of Engineering collaborated to launch the very first AWARE program in fall 2015 through a three-year, $100,000 NSF AWARE grant. Illinois AWARE provides entrepreneurship training, counseling, and networking, with a focus on competing for SBIR/STTR grants.

Illinois AWARE and other women’s entrepreneurship programs across the state appear to be working, according to the April report “University Entrepreneurship Index: Startup Activity Reaches New Heights” from the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition. “Over the past five years, 28% of university-supported startups in Illinois had at least one female founder — significantly higher than the nationwide figure of 17%,” the report notes.

Illinois decided against creating an entirely women-focused program using cohorts the way many early programs did, says Laura Weisskopf Bleill, MSJ, associate director of the Illinois Research Park and co-leader of Illinois AWARE. “We felt that was almost isolationist, so we took a very opposite approach. AWARE is a funnel program designed to get inventors off the ground so that they can ‘play in the sandbox.’ We help with those initial steps toward commercialization and then funnel them back out

into the existing entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

A detailed article on SPRI/STTR support programs for women innovators appears as part of the special June issue of Technology Transfer Tactics focused on addressing the gender gap in research commercialization. To subscribe and access the full article – and the special issue – along with the publication’s 11-year archive of best practices and success strategies for TTOs, CLICK HERE.  

Best Practices in Gaining SBIR/STTR Funding for University Technologies is a two-session distance learning collection filled with specific guidance and strategies for ensure your grant application stands out from the herd. For complete details, CLICK HERE.

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