Today’s knowledge economy is driven in large part by the nation’s entrepreneurs who see opportunities and are willing and able to take on risk to bring new welfare-enhancing, wealth-generating technologies to the market. Yet, while innovation in areas such as genomics, bioinformatics, and nanotechnology present new opportunities, converting these ideas into innovations for the market involves substantial challenges.1 The American capacity for innovation can be strengthened by addressing the challenges faced by entrepreneurs. Public-private partnerships are one means to help entrepreneurs bring new ideas to market.2

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is one of the largest examples of U.S. public-private partnerships. Founded in 1982, SBIR was designed to encourage small business to develop new processes and products and to provide quality research in support of the many missions of the U.S. government. By including qualified small businesses in the nation’s research and development (R&D) effort, SBIR grants are intended to stimulate innovative new technologies that help agencies meet the specific R&D needs of the nation in many areas, including health, the environment, and national defense.


As a part of the 2000 reauthorization of the SBIR program, Congress called for a review of the SBIR programs of the agencies that account collectively for 96 percent of program funding.3 The five agencies meeting this criterion, by size of program, are the Department of Defense (DoD), The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy (DoE), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Statement of Task: Congress directed the National Research Council (NRC), via HR 5667, to evaluate the quality of SBIR research and evaluate the SBIR program’s value to the agency mission. It called for an assessment of the extent to which SBIR projects achieve some measure of commercialization, as well as an evaluation of the program’s overall economic and noneconomic benefits. It also called for additional analysis as required to support specific recommendations on areas such as measuring outcomes for agency strategy and performance, increasing federal procurement of technologies produced by small business, and overall improvements to the SBIR program.4

Responding to congressional request for a “comprehensive study of how the SBIR program has stimulated technological innovation and used small businesses to meet federal research and development needs” and make recommendations on still further improvements to the program, this study by the NRC represents the first, systematic external analysis of the program’s operations, challenges, and accomplishments over the 20 years of its history. It provides an empirical analysis of the operations of the program and assesses the quality of research projects conducted under SBIR, the commercialization of research, and the program’s contribution to accomplishing agency missions.

To guide this study, the NRC drew together an expert committee that included eminent economists, small businessmen and women, and venture capitalists. The membership of this committee is listed in the front matter of this volume. Given the extent of “green-field research” required for this study, the Steering Committee in turn drew on a distinguished team of researchers to, among other tasks, administer surveys and case studies, and to develop statistical information about the program. The membership of this research team is also listed in the front matter to this volume.

This report is one of a series published by the National Academies in response to the congressional request. The series includes reports on the Small Business Innovation Research Program at the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation as well as an Overview Report that provides assessment of the program’s operations across the federal government. Other reports in the series include a summary of the 2002 conference that launched the study and that documented for the first time the enormous diversity in the SBIR program, and a summary of the 2005 conference on SBIR and the Phase III Challenge of Commercialization that focused on the DoD and NASA.5


The current assessment of the SBIR program follows directly from an earlier analysis of public-private partnerships by the National Research Council’s Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy (STEP). Under the direction of Gordon Moore, Chairman Emeritus of Intel, the NRC Committee on Government Industry Partnerships prepared 11 volumes reviewing the drivers of cooperation among industry, universities, and government; operational assessments of current programs; emerging needs at the intersection of biotechnology and information technology; the current experience of foreign government partnerships and opportunities for international cooperation; and the changing roles of government laboratories, universities, and other research organizations in the national innovation system.6

This analysis of public-private partnerships included two published studies of the SBIR program. Drawing from expert knowledge at a 1998 workshop held at the National Academy of Sciences, the first report, The Small Business Innovation Research Program: Challenges and Opportunities, examined the origins of the program and identified some operational challenges critical to the program’s future effectiveness.7 The report also highlighted the relative paucity of research on this program.

Following this initial report, the DoD asked the NRC to assess the Department’s Fast Track Initiative in comparison with the operation of its regular SBIR program. The resulting report, The Small Business Innovation Research Program: An Assessment of the Department of Defense Fast Track Initiative, was the first comprehensive, external assessment of the DoD’s program. The study, which involved substantial case study and survey research, found that the SBIR program was achieving its legislated goals. It also found that DoD’s Fast Track Initiative was achieving its objective of greater commercialization and recommended that the program be continued and expanded where appropriate.8 The report also recommended that the SBIR program overall would benefit from further research and analysis, a perspective adopted by the U.S. Congress in requesting this assessment.


On behalf of the National Academies, we express our appreciation and recognition for the insights, experiences, and perspectives made available by the participants of the conferences and meetings, as well as survey respondents and case study interviewees who participated over the course of this study. We are also very much in debt to officials from NASA, especially Carl Ray and Paul Mexcur, for their cooperation and assistance.

The committee’s research team deserves major recognition for their instrumental role in the preparation of this report. Thanks are due to David Finifter of the College of William and Mary, Michael Fogerty of Portland State University, and Julie Elston of Oregon State University. Robin Gaster of North Atlantic Research also deserves special recognition for the skills and insights he brought to the completion of the study. Without their collective efforts, amidst many other competing priorities, it would not have been possible to prepare this report.


This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise, in accordance with procedures approved by the National Academies’ Report Review Committee. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the process.

We wish to thank the following individuals for their review of this report: Robert Barnhill, Arizona State University; Bruce Marcus, TRW (Retired); Jeanne Powell, National Institute of Standards and Technology (Retired); and Robert Weiss, Physical Sciences, Inc.

Although the reviewers listed above have provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the conclusions or recommendations, nor did they see the final draft of the report before its release. The review of this report was overseen by Robert Frosch, Harvard University, and Robert White, Carnegie Mellon University. Appointed by the National Academies, they were responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with institutional procedures and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content of this report rests entirely with the authoring committee and the institution.

Jacques S. Gansler

Charles W. Wessner



See Lewis M. Branscomb, Kenneth P. Morse, Michael J. Roberts, and Darin Boville, Managing Technical Risk: Understanding Private Sector Decision Making on Early Stage Technology Based Projects, Washington, DC: Department of Commerce/National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2000.


For a summary analysis of best practice among U.S. public-private partnerships, see National Research Council, Government-Industry Partnerships for the Development of New Technologies: Summary Report, Charles W. Wessner, ed., Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2002.


See SBIR Reauthorization Act of 2000 (H.R. 5667—Section 108).


Chapter 3 of the Committee’s Methodology Report describes how this legislative guidance was drawn out in operational terms. National Research Council, An Assessment of the Small Business Innovation Research Program—Project Methodology, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2004. Access this report at <http://www7​.nationalacademies​.org/sbir/SBIR​_Methodology_Report.pdf>.


See National Research Council, SBIR: Program Diversity and Assessment Challenges, Charles W. Wessner, ed., Washington, DC: The National Academies Press 2004; and National Research Council, SBIR and the Phase III Challenge of Commercialization, Charles W. Wessner, ed., Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2007.


For a summary of the topics covered and main lessons learned from this extensive study, see National Research Council, Government-Industry Partnerships for the Development of New Technologies: Summary Report, op. cit.


See National Research Council, The Small Business Innovation Research Program: Challenges and Opportunities, Charles W. Wessner, ed., Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999.


See National Research Council, The Small Business Innovation Research Program: An Assessment of the Department of Defense Fast Track Initiative, Charles W. Wessner, ed., Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000. Given that virtually no published analytical literature existed on SBIR, this Fast Track study pioneered research in this area, developing extensive case studies and newly developed surveys.