From January 11-15, Venture Partners at CU Boulder kicked off our 2021 programming with SBIR Week, a mini-conference on the nuts and bolts of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants. Throughout the week over 200 lab scientists and faculty researchers joined us from universities across the Front Range (and some from the coasts!). We brought together guest speakers from across the country, including SBIR program managers representing federal agencies (NASA, NIH, NSF), experts in writing winning proposals, deep-tech financial professionals and academics who have used SBIR grants to successfully launch products in their businesses.
The week kicked off with our keynote “Ask the Expert” session with Ruth Shuman. Ruth is a former SBIR Program Manager for NSF and is currently the program director of NSF I-Corps. She discussed the high-level philosophy behind the SBIR program, including why someone should pursue the program and some of the ways to best utilize it.
"Write the commercial plan first!" —Ruth Shuman, NSF
Day two was all about writing SBIR proposals, and we had two guest speakers: Jana Watson-Capps, an academia-life science strategic planning consultant with extensive grant writing experience, and Ken Malone, the managing director and co-founder of Early Charm Ventures, a venture studio in Baltimore that specializes in turning scientific research from universities into businesses.
We learned about the fundamental requirements for writing SBIR proposals, and they discussed the best practices for winning proposals. When asked about using letters of support from other academics our guest was able to provide a clear, direct answer:
“Only letters from actual customers matter.” —Ken Malone, Early Charm Ventures
Wednesday’s session gave us a unique perspective into some of the behind the scenes operations of different SBIR programs. We brought together SBIR program managers from NSF, NIH and NASA for a panel discussion on the differences between what their criteria are for fundable technologies and how they judge grant applications. Afterward, we split into agency specific breakout rooms for more deepdive Q&A.
“The SBIR program is all about de-risking the tech to address a highly specific market need.” —Ela Mirowski, NSF
“Remember, you need proof of concept to be competitive.” —Stephanie Davis, NIH
The fourth day focused on finance with James Graham and Maileen Flores from Richtr Financial Studio presenting on how to leverage SBIR grant money. Jacob Segil from CU Boulder’s Center for Translational Research shared his budget template while James & Maileen covered key financial components of the SBIR grants and different accounting and management tools to maintain them. The focus should be on building a company financial system rather than managing a single grant or project.
“If you are trying to build this yourself, you want to think of the overall ecosystem that you are building." —James Graham, Richtr Financial Studio
For the final session of SBIR Week we heard from Levin Sliker, CEO and co-founder of Point Designs, and Terrance Boult Research Faculty, serial entrepreneur using SBIR to launch, and co-director of the Bachelor of Innovation degree program at UCCS. They shared firsthand accounts of their experience winning SBIR grants and how they use the funding to launch a specific entry product and ultimately grow their businesses. Terrance also shared how he has helped graduate and postdoctoral students win SBIR awards to launch businesses as they graduate to provide an alternative career path.
We closed out the week with some words from Terri Fiez, CU Boulder’s vice chancellor for research and innovation.
“Pulling from our various research institutions, [Colorado] could be the most vibrant place in the whole country, given the assets we have… ...experts who can help guide you, or you helping the next person in line. That’s really what entrepreneurship is all about.” —Terri Fiez, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, CU Boulder