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Don’t leave this money on the table!

Tell your SBIR/STTR companies about this little-known supplement

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Other than classified intelligence, the Technical and Business Assistance (TABA) supplement might be the U.S. government’s best-kept secret. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program supplement is still new and not well-described on federal agency sites or even listed on www.sbir.gov to help people understand what it’s all about. But if TABA isn’t something you’re encouraging your SBIR companies to apply for, they’re leaving money on the table.

“Figuring out what TABA is and how it might be relevant to a specific company can be challenging because the rules surrounding the supplement vary from one government agency to another,” says Laura Schoppe, president and owner of tech transfer consulting firm Fuentek LLC, a TABA vendor. “The amounts awarded and guidelines for using a TABA vendor are different, for example, at NASA than they are at DoD, and even different between the Army and the Navy [within DoD].”

Congress enacted TABA in August of 2018 under the John McCain National Defense Authorization Act (JMNDAA). The goal was to improve the commercialization of SBIR-funded activities by providing market-based support services associated with the SBIR research — along with supplemental funding to pay for them — so that the companies would be more successful in commercializing the results of the government-supported innovations. The addition of the TABA funding should also reduce the practice of SBIR companies applying for multiple consecutive grants to fund research but never producing any products. “As a result of these abuses,” explains Schoppe, “agencies are getting stricter on how they look at the commercialization potential of technologies. Most agencies are now asking for a lot more detail on companies’ business plans.”

How it works

The JMNDAA allows agencies to offer SBIR/STTR applicants additional funding of up to $6,500 for Phase I awards and up to $50,000 for Phase II awards, which are used to pay vendors to provide commercialization services and support. However, not all agencies offer companies the maximum amount.

Each agency can either require its SBIR companies to contract with the agency’s preferred vendors or select their own TABA vendor. For example, DOE has two “captive” vendors that their SBIR companies must either use or request special permission to use an alternative vendor. NIH has only one vendor; no alternatives are allowed. Other agencies, like NASA, allow SBIR companies to select their own TABA vendor.

Finding a vendor is not easy. As Schoppe points out, “the companies may have no idea that TABA exists or what advantage it has for them, let alone who they’re going to go to and ask to provide that service.” Meanwhile, TABA vendors have a difficult time reaching out to SBIR companies too. “Fuentek is a TABA provider,” explains Schoppe, “but how do I advertise to small businesses that might be applying for an SBIR? There’s no centralized database of potential applicants. That’s not an easy group of people to reach out to.”

Companies applying for SBIR grants are not required to apply for a TABA supplement. However, it is essential to note that to receive the TABA funds, companies must include the request as part of their SBIR proposal, since these requests are not accepted after the company has received an SBIR award.

However, companies can request TABA support for Phase II even if they didn’t ask for it at Phase I, and not using a TABA vendor for Phase I does not negatively impact the decision to approve TABA for Phase II.

When the agency receives an SBIR proposal that includes a TABA request, the agency will first go through the technical review process and decide about accepting the company into the SBIR program, and if the award is made then agencies review the TABA request. The reviewers ensure that the TABA vendors are qualified U.S. small businesses that can provide appropriate services. If the TABA request is approved, the agency adds TABA funding as a supplement to the SBIR award.

The companies pay the TABA vendor directly, and then the agency reimburses the SBIR company. The recipients must record how the funds are spent and provide invoices to the agency, which in turn must justify TABA expenditures to Congress. The SBIR recipient cannot provide its own TABA services, and any unused funds remain in possession of the agency.

Potential uses for TABA supplement

TABA vendors can provide support for:

  • Product Sales
  • IP Protection
  • Market Research
  • Market Validation
  • Development of Regulatory and Manufacturing Plans.

One TABA vendor, veteran tech transfer consulting firm Foresight Science and Technology, gets more specific with the services it can provide under TABA, listing these offerings on its website:

  • Market Assessment- reviewing competitive technologies, market size and dynamics
  • SWOT Analysis and/or Needs Assessment
  • Expert/End-User Interviews for Insights and Market Validation
  • Review and edit of Commercialization Plan
  • IP Landscape Review
  • IP Strategy Consultation
  • Product Development Consultation
  • Regulatory Strategy Consulting
  • Market Entry Launch Strategy Development
  • Company Resource and Team Building
  • Manufacturing Strategy Consultation
  • Financial Plan Review
  • Fundraising Strategy Development
  • Preparation of Technology Marketing Material
  • Identification of and Outreach to Potential Commercialization Partners
  • Technology Marketing for Trade Show, Conference, or Event
  • Deal Terms/ Licensing Advisory

During Phase I, the idea behind TABA is that a vendor takes on certain tasks that allow companies to stay focused on research and development that they must complete before they apply for Phase II. During those early days, the TABA vendor assists in shaping the company’s commercialization roadmap, which will strengthen the company’s ability to apply for a future Phase II grant and identify strategies for taking the company beyond the SBIR program.

The Phase I TABA is designed to help SBIR companies define an initial commercialization strategy, Schoppe explains, including tasks such as market and customer identification, defining the competition and potential partners. The TABA work provides the foundation for a successful business plan, including information required as part of a Phase II proposal and request for additional TABA funds.

“In Phase II,” Schoppe says, “it’s no longer just about market research. The company is trying to get more towards implementation.” TABA would pay for such Phase II activities as calling potential partners, creating partnerships and relationships, or applying for patents and the legal costs of doing so. “The goal at the end of the Phase II SBIR funding is to have a prototype that can hopefully lead to a license or partner … to do further pilot testing and get it to production and commercialization.”

Companies do not necessarily use the same TABA vendor for Phase II that they used for Phase I. “Some of that has to do with what they need,” Schoppe comments. “They might also hire a patent attorney to help file a patent or to develop their IP strategy.” However, Schoppe notes that if the company uses a TABA vendor specializing in technology commercialization, such as Fuentek, they are likely to use the same vendor for Phase I and Phase II.

How to tap into TABA

Because the government has not widely promoted TABA, it is not well known or understood. “Tech transfer offices can help their small businesses navigate not just applying for an SBIR grant but also including a request for TABA funding,” says Schoppe. “The TTOs know who their start-ups are that may be eligible for SBIR funding, so they are in a good position to communicate with the small businesses about this opportunity.”

Schoppe also notes that representatives from the SBIR program have been reaching out via AUTM to educate the TTOs about this funding. “At AUTM, we’ve been trying to inform the tech transfer offices that this exists so that they can recommend to their start-ups to go after SBIR funding plus the TABA supplement because it’s so advantageous.”

“It’s a no-brainer,” adds Schoppe. “It’s free money, free advice, free help. They should all ask for help. Many SBIR applicant companies are not asking for this yet because they don’t know about it.”

Contact Schoppe at laschoppe@fuentek.com.


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