While it is important to know whether firms receiving SBIR awards are successful or not, David Audretsch reminded the conference audience that the larger purpose of the SBIR program is to improve the efficiency of the American economy “to make it more innovative than it would be otherwise.” The creation of innovation firms, as a result of SBIR awards, is an important contribution of the program. Thus, a balanced assessment of SBIR has to go beyond measuring the operational impact of individual awards. It is also to consider the broader institutional role that SBIR plays in the United States economy. Given the need for administrative flexibility and the considerable operational diversity of SBIR, highlighted in the conference, an important question to ask is how agency-specific implementation practices support or detract from these broader program goals.89
Carnegie Mellon University’s Christina Gabriel noted in this regard that SBIR plays an important role in bringing the contribution of university research to market. Pointing to the role that technology transfer from Carnegie Mellon has played in the revitalization of Pittsburgh’s economy, she noted that job gains and regional economic growth could be realized by exploring ways by which SBIR can be better linked to the national innovation system.
Further to this point, Joseph Bordogna of the National Science Foundation observed that in addition to investing in the nation’s scientists and engineers, SBIR also serves as a key institutional facilitator in the integrative research that increasingly characterizes innovation-led growth. This distinctive role for SBIR, he argued, is best understood as one element in the large-scale transformations taking place in the nation’s research and innovation enterprise.
As the nation’s innovation system continues to evolve towards greater collaboration and multi-disciplinary research, public-private partnerships such as SBIR may play an increasingly important role in bringing together the expertise from business, academia, and government, as well as from across disciplinary boundaries. As the innovation system changes, the ability of firms to traverse the Valley of Death also grows increasingly important, highlighting the role that SBIR can play in facilitating the transition of new ideas to commercial application.
In these respects, as Dr. Bordogna concluded, an SBIR assessment that takes the long view could well serve as a “revolutionary chart of the new paths we will follow in the twenty-first century.” The conference launching the NRC assessment of SBIR is a first step in charting this ambitious path.