National Science Foundation Promoting the Acceleration of
Basic Research into Marketable Innovations
By Martin Kleckner III PhD MBA, Office of Technology Partnerships Entrepreneur-in-Residence
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” At the March 12 SBIR/STTRCON19 presented by U C Riverside’s Office of Technology Partnerships, the NSF’s Jesus Soriano Molla PhD MD MBA presented a program designed to accelerate the translation of NSF grant-funded basic research. Dr. Soriano Molla, who is the program director for the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships discussed the characteristics of the NSF’s Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) and the SBIR/STTR programs. He distinguished the two affiliated programs by means of the following question directed to help determine which grant opportunity would be right for us. The question was “What is the ultimate goal and where is the intellectual ‘center of gravity’ of the work?” The answer is that they both are, but timing and stage of progress of our research delineates which one is the most appropriate to pursue. By comparison, Yogi Berra was giving his friend and Yankees colleague Joe Garagiola directions from New York to his house in Montclair, New Jersey when he is said to have given the above (in bold) directions. Similar is the case for funding directions where one route may nevertheless be the more suitable depending upon circumstances relative to how far we have progressed to date with our research.
- Is the work and intellectual merit centered at U C Riverside? If emphasis is on translating a promising research result or discovery out of the university, then we should consider PFI funding.
- Is the work driven by a small business? If emphasis is on high risk/high reward and successfully launching the small business, then we should consider going for SBIR/STTR grant funding.
These two commercialization pathways are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A PFI-funded initiative may precede an SBIR/STTR grant on an innovation’s growth timeline. The NSF’s aim is, however, to increase the opportunities for fundamental research, that it has supported, to be moved to applied research whereby the results may be translated into marketable innovations.
So, what are PFI program aims? Intended outcomes are five-fold as delineated in Program Solicitation NSF 19-506 and expressed by Dr. Soriano Molla on March 12.
- The first is to commercialize IP presenting with viable potential derived from basic research funded by the NSF.
In addition, the program is designed to:
- Support prior and currently NSF-funded researchers and institutions, back the development technology prototypes that have potential market value, and aid the licensing of that IP
- Promote sustainable partnerships between NSF-funded institutions and industry with the purpose of accelerating the transfer of the technology
- Develop multi-disciplinary innovation ecosystems involving academia and industry, and
- Provide professional development, mentoring, and advice in entrepreneurship, project management, and technology + business development to innovators.
Importantly, PFI responds to a Congressional mandate to support prototype or proof-of-concept development work by entrepreneurs, including I-Corps participants, whose innovations, due to their very early stage of progress, are not yet eligible to participate in the SBIR/STTR program. Equally vital per Congressional mandate are the formation of university – industry collaborations in concert with expanding the involvement of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in technology innovation, translation, and entrepreneurship.
PFI proposals may be submitted via two tracks.
The Technology Translation (PFI-TT) track enables us to translate prior NSF-funded basic research results into technological innovations presenting with promising commercial potential and societal impact. It funds proof-of-concept, prototyping, technology development and/or scale-up work demonstration projects. Simultaneously, students and postdoctoral researchers who participate in PFI-TT projects receive education and leadership training in innovation and entrepreneurship. PFI-TT grants are up to $250,000 over 18-24 months.
The Research Partnerships (PFI-RP) track has the same goals as the PFI-TT track yet supports instead “complex, multi-faceted technology development projects that are typically beyond the scope of a single researcher or institution and require a multi-organizational, interdisciplinary, synergistic collaboration”. Partnerships are required between academic researchers and third-party organizations such as industry, non-academic research organizations, federal laboratories, public or non-profit technology transfer organizations or other universities. Such partnerships are needed to conduct applied research on a stand-alone larger project wherein without the partnership the project’s likelihood for success would be minimal. PFI-RP grants are up to $550,000 over 36 months.
There is an NSF lineage requirement to be considered for a PFI-TT or RP award. The project must be based upon a prior NSF-funded basic research grant, completed within the last seven years OR it must be based upon an I-Corps award whereby customer discovery was satisfactorily accomplished within the past four years.
Partnerships are a critical component of the PFI program. They are intended to accelerate the technology’s development toward commercialization. Collaborations with industrial partners are mandatory for PFI-RP projects and strongly encouraged for PFI-TT proposals; collaborations with academic or non-profit research partners, public or non-profit, non-academic organizations directly associated with technology transfer activities are also strongly encouraged for both PFI-RP and PFI-TT proposals. In addition, students and postdoctoral researchers with great developmental potential should participate in the PFI project. They will receive innovation and entrepreneurship training that will ideally result in a leadership role in a future NSF SBIR/STTR-funded company.
For further information on this opportunity, check out “Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) Program Solicitation NSF 19-506” (https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2019/nsf19506/nsf19506.htm). Proposal submission deadlines are twice annually: the second Wednesday in January and likewise in July. The forthcoming deadline is July 10, 2019. Need help in securing an industry partner? We may be able to help.
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