The evidence provided here is of a preliminary nature, partially because of the smallness of the sample, which consisted of 12 case studies and 20 firms’ responses to a survey instrument, but also because of the particular context within which SBIR operates in a state such as Indiana. The fact that a viable cluster of knowledge-based small firms has been lacking in Indiana has implications for the commercialization possibilities for scientists and engineers. Perhaps a more subtle impact is that it limits knowledge about commercialization possibilities and the existence of ancillary services and institutions facilitating commercialization.
The results suggest that the SBIR has influenced the career paths of scientists and engineers by facilitating the start-up of new firms. Furthermore, there are indications that the experience of scientists and engineers in commercialization via a small business has an externality by spilling over to influence the career trajectories of colleagues.
Both the survey and the case studies provide the following consistent evidence:
A significant number of the firms would not have been started in the absence of SBIR.
A significant number of the scientists and engineers would not have become involved in the commercialization process in the absence of SBIR.
A significant number of other firms are started because of the demonstration effect produced by the efforts of scientists to commercialize knowledge.
As a result of the demonstration effect by SBIR-funded commercialization, a number of other scientists alter their careers to include commercialization efforts.
Technology-based entrepreneurs start firms because they have ideas that they think are potentially valuable; they do not start firms and then search for useful ideas or products. This is reflected by the fact that not a single respondent on either the survey or from the case studies suggested that he or she would have tried to start the firm with a different idea in the absence of SBIR funding. However, once the firm exists, one-quarter of the respondents and one-sixth of the case studies indicated that they would have tried to continue the firm with a different idea in the absence of SBIR funding. These different results may suggest that the SBIR has a greater impact on potential entrepreneurs than on existing small firms in commercializing ideas that otherwise would not find their way into the market.
A large-scale study spanning a broad spectrum of SBIR awardees should be undertaken to confirm these preliminary findings. Incorporating greater variation in either the funding agency or the underlying science could help to identify how the impact of SBIR on influencing the entrepreneurial behavior of scientists differs across scientific fields and funding agencies.