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An Assessment of the SBIR Program at the National Science Foundation
In 2005, the program identified the following seven broad topic areas:
Electronics Technology (EL)
Information Based Technology (IT)
Advanced Materials and Manufacturing (AM)
Chemical Based Technology (CT)
Security Based Technology (ST)
Manufacturing Innovation (MI)
When a solicitation is held in a topic area, it is fleshed out with subtopics. The subtopics add specificity to the solicitation. (For additional discussion, see Chapter 4.)
For example, Table 8.1-1 shows the 2004 “Advanced Materials” (AM) second- and third-level subtopics. Note that the third level serves to eliminate, as well as to define, areas of inquiry. AM included “Manufacturing” and “Chemical Processes,” but these are shown here only to the second level.
In its first solicitation, the Securities Technologies (ST) topic area was defined as cross-disciplinary, and proposals submitted under this topic had to represent the convergence of at least two of the following three technologies: nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology (both hardware and software). Proposals also had to “be responsive to a subtopic within the solicitation,” listed in Table 8.1-2, effective April 2004.
8.1.2 Sources for Topic Ideas
According to NSF SBIR program management:
… topics are rooted in the agency’s vision and strategic goals. In particular, SBIR and STTR are uniquely positioned to emphasize NSF vision of innovation. Since NSF is not the final customer for the SBIR/STTR grantees, it is imperative that our grantees are positioned to tap into private sector capital, which is essential for commercializing the technology developed under the SBIR grant. Therefore, NSF topics reflect the market opportunity and are aligned with the broad investment business. At the same time the topics also resonate with the science and engineering disciplines that NSF supports within its Directorates and Divisions. (SOURCE: “NSF SBIR Response to NRC Questions,” January 2004)
This study found no formal process for soliciting outside input in the generation of NSFs topic ideas—such as a white-paper process used to develop thematic ideas in concert with industry. Rather, the sources for topic and subtopic ideas were said to come from NSFs program managers as they interact with industry and others at conferences and workshops, or through an approach devised by a program manager and approved by the SBIR director.