demic research. Small companies reportedly were also at a disadvantage when competing for funding at DoD and NASA because those agencies’ procurement process was oriented toward large, complex systems and the companies that could supply them. The NSF’s precursor SBIR program was established in part to respond to complaints by the small business community that it was being shut out of government funding for innovative research and for procurement and in part due to the conviction of key individuals within the NSF that small business represented an untapped resource.

The NSF’s Early Emphasis on Commercialization

As is often the case, the right people in the right place at the right time played a critical role in shaping the NSF’s response to the complaints by the small business community. These key individuals were Roland Tibbetts, who was instrumental in establishing the precursor SBIR program and rightly receives credit for developing the SBIR concept along with Ritchie Coryell. Interestingly both individuals had business training and shared the view that small companies could produce innovative, high quality research that could contribute to the nation’s science base. Furthermore, they believed that the small companies with the drive and know-how to commercialize were likely to be the same companies that could perform high quality research—a view that led the NSF program to have from the start a strong emphasis on commercialization That has continued and increased to the present time.1

According to Mr. Coryell, the view driving NSF’s formulation of its small business initiative was that the agency already had a substantial emphasis on academic research in its grant programs. To provide a real counterpoint, the new program would target small companies and stress commercialization while also promoting innovation and high quality research.2 These dual goals were considered completely compatible by the developers of the original SBIR program.3 The NSF SBIR program’s emphasis on commercialization, then and now, contrasts strongly with NSF’s otherwise strong orientation towards funding academic research as a means of contributing to the nation’s science and technical knowledge base.


Interview with Ritchie Coryell, NSF SBIR Program Staff, on October 23, 2003. (Note that Mr. Coryell has since retired.)




More than a decade later, the experience of the Advanced Technology Program lends support to the idea that many small businesses, including the extremely small, often combine capacities for high quality, innovative research with exceptional business acumen, such that it is unnecessary for the program to choose between these strengths in order to engage with small businesses. For a description of ATP processes and achievements, see “The Advanced Technology Program: Assessing Outcomes,” National Academy Press, 2001.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement