Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Grant funding for TTO operations and programs: An overlooked resource


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: January 11th, 2022

A detailed article on accessing grant funds for internal TTO projects and programs appears in the December issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe access the complete article, or for further subscription details, click here.

Federal grants are the lifeblood of university research, and TTOs also benefit from the innovations that spring from that funding. But tech transfer offices can benefit more directly by applying for and gaining grant funds to pay for their own internal projects or initiatives, as several TTOs are proving. And as federal agencies have become keen to support innovation and entrepreneurship, ignoring these opportunities may amount to a significant missed opportunity.

While the dollar amounts are small compared to the billions spent on research every year, these grants could be meaningful to the TTOs and help them accomplish some key deliverables using money they would have otherwise had to extract from their budgets — or not run the programs at all.

Two technology transfer units that take advantage of federal and other grants are Innovation Gateway at the University of Georgia and CU Innovations at the University of Colorado.

Ian Biggs, chief operating officer of Innovation Gateway, says the program has recently garnered four grants, two of which have been “transformational in terms of how we operate.” He cites their I-Corps grant, which they got about three years ago, as having “the single biggest [impact on our operations] that we’ve had [from a grant].”

The grant garnered $500,000 over five years and funded 30 I-Corps teams a year at $3,000, plus $10,000 for administration and other costs in the program. In addition, Biggs later applied for an I-Corps add-on grant that paid $100,000 for changes he needed to make to convert the program to online delivery during the pandemic. Biggs’ program also recently received a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Federal and State Technology (FAST) Grant, which had a significant positive impact on his team’s ability to help write SBIR/STTR applications.

In Colorado, Kimberly Muller, executive director of CU Innovations, won a $4 million Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (REACH) grant from NIH to scale CU Innovations’ SPARK program, which they ran in partnership with Stanford University. Key leadership for this grant application effort was provided by Ron Sokol, Director of the CCTSI (Colorado Clinical and Translational Research Institute), and Rick Duke, a CU faculty member and entrepreneur who has led and worked with CU faculty on several start-ups.

Through this hybrid SPARK|REACH program, CU Innovations offers faculty funding to help translate their ideas. It also provides mentorship in the form of entrepreneurs in residence, regulatory and reimbursement experts, and an educational curriculum in innovation.

Prior to the grant support, CU Innovations ran the SPARK program for two years without external funding but faced prohibitive costs. Muller and her team started looking at funding opportunities and came across the solicitation for REACH. NIH awarded the grant three years ago, and CU Innovations has used it to expand the program, make it available to more people, and disseminate best practices nationwide. Recently, in recognition of the program’s impact, the SBA Office of Innovation and Technology awarded a $50,000 Growth Accelerator Grant to help CU Innovations encourage diversity and inclusion across the spectrum of technology and innovation.

“I think most technology transfer offices have not considered grant funding to support their [offices and programs],” Muller says. “We tried to take a creative approach to offset some of our expenses to scale resources that would ultimately lead to better impact and better ROIs for our offices.”

Although few technology transfer offices are applying for federal grants to support internal operations, the word is getting out, and competition is growing. But the amount of money available is also increasing.

“At the federal level, there are more and more dollars every day being poured into programs like [SPARK|REACH] because [technology transfer is] a national priority,” Muller observes. “I expect [these types of grants] will grow exponentially based on the success of those programs.”

She also pointed out that state programs are opening their eyes to the potential benefits of supporting TTO infrastructure as a means of boosting the economic development activity in their states and regions. “So yes, we are always competing against other academic institutions,” Muller adds. “And I see that only increasing as people realize the true value that this can bring to our organizations.”

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Best Practices in Gaining SBIR/STTR Funding for University Technologies is a two-session distance learning collection filled with how-to guidance on landing critical, non-dilutive funding for university start-ups. Click here for more details.

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