Guest Commentary by Michael Weingarten
Bringing Science to the Market
To many people, NCI is thought of principally as a source of funding for cancer research. But the Institute is also an important driver of small business and technology development. Through its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, NCI plays a critical role in helping small businesses develop and commercialize innovative technologies that can improve how we prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer. And through an array of new initiatives, NCI is playing a major role in facilitating the success of the small businesses it funds.
Current SBIR awardees are developing technologies that address a broad range of pressing needs, from novel therapeutics to highly sensitive and cost-effective diagnostic and imaging devices. Our newly released funding opportunities cover technologies in some of the most promising areas of cancer research, such as circulating tumor cell analysis and companion diagnostics. In order to secure SBIR funding, applicants can submit unsolicited grant proposals or respond to specific contract proposals for technology development that NCI has identified as a priority, a mechanism that is increasingly being used.
One of the most important changes to the SBIR program is the launch 2 years ago of the Phase II Bridge Awards. Following a model pioneered by the National Science Foundation, the Bridge Awards are intended to help small businesses survive what has come to be known as the “valley of death,” the critical time between early- and late-stage development of new cancer therapeutics, diagnostics, or devices. It is during this time when funding sources can dry up and technologies or interventions with tremendous potential can end up as casualties of an unpredictable and often unforgiving business environment.
Bridge Awards are designed to support the next stage of development for previously funded SBIR Phase II projects. To be competitive for a Bridge Award, which provides up to $3 million in funding, Phase II companies should secure matching funds from the private sector, such as a venture capital firm or a strategic partner (e.g., a large pharmaceutical or device company). In effect, a Bridge Award gives the small business some leverage to attract additional resources.
The results of the first round of Bridge Awards exceeded our most optimistic expectations: awards totaling $17 million went to six companies, and those companies secured approximately $50 million collectively in matching funds from private sources. That’s a nearly threefold leverage for our investment, and these small companies now have the resources to maneuver through the perilous valley of death. This novel public-private partnership initiative is providing a platform to assist small businesses in transitioning to commercially viable entities.
For small businesses, raising funds from investors or strategic partners can still be a very difficult task. For this reason, NCI is now conducting an annual investor forum where potential investors can get a first look at some of the most promising SBIR companies that are developing the next generation of cancer therapeutic, diagnostic, or imaging technologies. The first forum, held last year, was a tremendous success. Our second forum, which will feature 14 awardees, is scheduled for November 9 at Stanford University, and it’s not too late for interested investors to register for this unique event.
Finally, NCI has made significant changes in how the SBIR program is run. Over the last 2 years we have created a development center for managing SBIR and brought on nine program directors who help awardees move through the development and commercialization process. These program directors come from pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and device firms, with both scientific and business expertise and proven track records for getting new technologies to market. They advise SBIR awardees on many aspects of their technology development and business strategies, thus working to accelerate the development and ultimate commercialization of funded technologies.
Interest in NCI’s SBIR program has never been greater. In fact, the number of phase I applications increased nearly 70 percent between 2008 and 2009, a trend that is likely to continue. Much of what the SBIR program does in terms of the development of new technologies goes on outside the view of the public. But the role of NCI SBIR as an engine of innovation is a critical component of improving the science of cancer research and the care of patients with cancer. And, in the end, that’s what NCI’s mission is all about.
Director, NCI Small Business Innovation Research Development Center