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NCI Program Supports Small Businesses to Advance Cancer Research Innovation – A Q&A with Michael Weingarten

, by NCI Staff

NCI’s SBIR program, one of the largest in the country focused on supporting small businesses that are advancing innovation in biomedical research, recently issued new contract funding opportunities.

Credit: iStock

Last month, NCI's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program issued 12 contract solicitations intended to spur the development of new therapies and technologies that can address emerging areas of cancer research. The contract opportunities includes seven that are specific to high-priority areas identified by the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel. Contract solicitation applications are due by October 20.

In this interview, Michael Weingarten, M.A., director of the NCI SBIR Development Center, which also oversees the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, provides background on the SBIR program, the goals of the new contract solicitations, and how the SBIR program can help small businesses advance innovative cancer-related technologies and treatments.

Most people don’t equate small business with cancer research. How does the SBIR program fit into NCI’s mission?

NCI’s SBIR program is the main funding mechanism at NCI to promote the translation, further development, and ultimate commercialization of new therapies and technologies that span the cancer research spectrum.

The SBIR program has a $160 million budget, and we want to fund the best science. If you look at our portfolio of small businesses with NCI SBIR funding, approximately 35% are developing new therapies, 20% are developing new diagnostics, and 25% are developing new devices, imaging technologies in particular. The remainder are companies that are developing new tools for conducting research and digital health applications, the latter of which is a rapidly growing part of our portfolio.

How do these new contract solicitations fit into the picture?

About 75% of the center’s portfolio supports investigator-initiated grants—basically, small businesses who come to us with their best ideas. So, for example, take a small business started by an NCI-funded academic researcher who developed a cancer technology that he or she thinks might have real value and will benefit patients. That company applies to the SBIR or STTR program requesting funding to help them further support the development of that project.

We also use the SBIR program to incentivize the development of technologies that address an important need and that we think are ripe for the small business community to pursue. Our contracts process is how we do that.

As part of that process, every year we ask NCI senior leaders and program managers across the NCI to propose what they view as emerging technology areas that, if NCI SBIR were to invest targeted funds in these areas, could really help to move them forward. Then an internal group of scientific experts from across NCI reviews the suggested topics and helps us select those we should move ahead with.

So the main difference between grants and contracts is that with the latter, NCI defines the priority areas where we want small businesses to step in and drive the innovation.

Are there special goals for this year’s contract solicitations?

What sets this year’s solicitations apart from those of previous years is that we specifically encouraged topics that were linked to the priority need areas identified in the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel report.

Of the 12 contract topics that are being solicited, seven are tied to the Cancer Moonshot. For example, one is for technologies that can help to bridge the gap in the management of cancer-related symptoms between what is recommended by nationally accepted, evidence-based guidelines and the actual care that’s often delivered in practice.

So the idea of this contract topic is for applicants to develop clinical decision support tools that leverage accepted clinical practice guidelines to increase the use of those best practices in everyday patient care.

Are there advantages for a small business to get funding from SBIR rather than private-sector investors?

Yes, there are many important benefits of SBIR funding.

First, the funding that a small business gets from us is what’s called “non-dilutive.” In other words, the government is providing the funding as a grant or contract, but we don’t take an equity position in the company. By contrast, when a small business gets funding from a venture capital firm or pharmaceutical company, for example, the firm will typically want a percentage of the company as a condition of their investment.

Also, the companies we’re funding own the intellectual property developed under the grant or contract. Again, with private investors, small businesses may often have to share that ownership and/or royalties, depending on the deal that they negotiate.

We also offer the small businesses that we support the opportunity to participate in our Investor Initiatives program. Through this program, SBIR-funded companies whose technology is maturing and need to raise private capital to start moving their product toward commercialization can present their technology to a select group of investors. The program has been very successful and we have many examples of businesses that have secured large investments as a result.

Finally, one thing that really sets NCI’s SBIR program apart from other investors is that we are typically willing to take more of a risk compared with other types of investors who have to think primarily in terms of future profits.

With SBIR, the market potential of the technology is only one of the considerations. We’re investing early in the business development process, trying to seed the development of technologies or therapies that may be higher risk but also have the potential for a major impact in meeting patient needs.

The NCI SBIR program has a large portfolio. What’s the process for managing so many grants and contracts?

Michael Weingarten, M.A. Director NCI SBIR Development Center

We fund about 450 projects at any given time, so we definitely have a large portfolio. Our program directors spend 100% of their time on the projects we fund to help keep them moving forward.

Because of how we’re set up, we’re also able to dedicate a lot of time to reaching out to small businesses and offering them a suite of services that are important to start-up companies. We hold 35–40 information sessions each year to educate the small business community about the SBIR program and advise them on how to submit a strong application. We also offer training programs and access to expertise. I don’t think we could do that without having staff who are wholly dedicated to this program.

What are the key dates for those interested in pursuing SBIR funding?

For these new contract solicitations, the due date for applications is October 20. Also, for those who are interested in submitting an application for an investigator-initiated grant—through what is called the SBIR/STTR omnibus solicitation—there are three due dates every year: January 5, April 5, and September 5.

Program Provides Training on Becoming a Biomedical Entrepreneur

Transforming a novel technology from an idea in the lab to a commercially available product takes time, money, and, importantly, an understanding of the business side of product development.

Entrepreneurs who secure SBIR funding from NCI, other NIH institutes, or CDC can now get business training through the I-Corps at NIH™, an 8-week entrepreneurship training program.

I-Corps at NIH “teaches companies how to build a business model around the technology that they’re developing,” Weingarten explained. “The leaders of the small businesses that we’re funding are often academic researchers or others who don’t have much of a business background. They may not be familiar with strategies like how to analyze business opportunities or identify where the need for their technology is greatest.”

A key aspect of the program, he continued, is connecting participating businesses with potential customers by having I-Corps companies conduct at least 100 interviews so they can learn about the customers’ needs and better understand where their product fits in the marketplace.

“Many companies begin by thinking that they have built a better mousetrap and that everybody will be interested in it,” Weingarten said. “It’s often not that simple. I-Corps at NIH can increase their likelihood of success by helping to connect them with the reality of what the true market is.”

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