Winslow Sargeant, chief counsel for advocacy at the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, was on campus this week for a roundtable discussion with entrepreneurs and researchers about the regulatory and bureaucratic barriers, and funding limitations that can keep good inventions stuck in the laboratory. The discussion was hosted by the von Liebig Center forEntrepreneurism and Technology Advancement and CONNECT.
“Research is the transformation of money into knowledge. Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money in the form of companies, products and services,” said Sargeant. “We want you to make it to the other side,” he added, referencing the dreaded valley of death, where many an innovative idea has died due to lack of resources and funding.
Several challenges were raised during the discussion, including dwindling federal and state funding for research and commercialization via the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program (combined with increased competition for those dollars), mismatched priorities between the kind of research that federal agencies fund and the needs of the medical community, and the funding process by which proposals are reviewed, which several in attendance described as “broken.”
The uncertainty about funding for research is creating a discouraging environment for undergraduate and graduate students considering whether to pursue a doctorate degree, which several attendees agreed could be “devastating” at the junior faculty level over the long-term. Sargeant said this trend is especially problematic. “If we’re encouraging young people to go into STEM fields, there has to be a pathway. There can’t be a valley of death for the entrepreneur and scientist,” he said.
Solutions were also proposed. Among them: shortening the review cycle for Small Business Innovation Research grants from nine months or more to three to five months; providing more education and training to individuals who review the SBIR funding proposals; a mentoring program to help less experienced entrepreneurs compete for this type of funding; and a pre-proposal process to weed out and provide feedback to researchers whose ideas need more work. Attendees also recommended changing an SBIR rule that requires the principal investigator on any grant to be primarily employed (more than 50 percent of the time) by the company. The requirement often means faculty members or researchers need to leave the university – and the health care and other benefits it provides – to pursue a highly risky venture.
Sargeant is currently traveling around the country visiting with business leaders, inventors and entrepreneurs about the challenges that may be impeding the growth of small businesses. As chief counsel for advocacy at the SBA, Sargeant advocates for policies that support the growth and development of small businesses. The von Liebig Center at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering provides proof of concept funding and advisory services to accelerate the commercialization of university research throughout Southern California.