Aug 31, 2018

Independent Study Opportunity at CBEY

Capturing a Quiet Revolution at NSF: How an Agency Reinvented the SBIR Award Process

The Yale Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY) will conduct research into how Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants are awarded at the federal level. In partnership with Doug Rand, a CBEY Expert in Residence, we will engage and interview multiple stakeholders at the National Science Foundation to develop a publication that explores the effectiveness of specific operational changes in their SBIR program over the last decade.

Issue Summary:

The federal government is obligated to allocate ~$2.5 billion each year on R&D funding to startups and small businesses, through funding called Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards. There is huge variation, however, across agencies in terms of program design and outcomes. Over the past decade, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has quietly reinvented its SBIR program, so that it more effectively directs funding toward young high-risk/high-reward startups working on cutting-edge technology, rather than "SBIR mills" (private R&D labs that have benefitted from most of these awards for decades). The total value of NSF's awardee portfolio, based on follow-on equity rounds, is well north of $1B, including some very intriguing companies (e.g. Bolt Threads). 

The revamping of the NSF SBIR program is a huge success story, but only a handful of people know about it. The National Academies have published thousands of pages on SBIR grant programs, but have largely missed the point: the NSF, which represents only ~10% of the total SBIR funds, has discovered concrete operational changes (which don’t require an act of Congress) that dramatically benefit hard-tech entrepreneurs with no other source of patient capital.

The goal of this independent study will be to use both qualitative and quantitative means to tell the story of how key operational changes were discovered and implemented at the NSF, as well as explore how these operational changes may serve as an effective model for other federal agencies.


  • Create a public document (e.g. a CBEY publication or case study) that has the potential to influence and shape operational changes at the SBIR programs of federal agencies.

Stages of Work:

  • Conduct an initial analysis of existing information on the overall effectiveness of the SBIR program;
  • Interview stakeholders at NSF to identify how NSF discovered and implemented operational changes to benefit hard-tech entrepreneurs;
  • Map out how the SBIR program at NSF creates additional value from follow-on equity;
  • Research the operational model and the outcomes of SBIR programs at other federal agencies, such as the Department of Energy or Department of Defense;
  • Identify, access, and analyze data sets that allow for comparison of the efficacy of SBIR programs at different agencies;
  • Synthesize information into an initial publication to be published in January or February 2019.

Staff & Advisors:

  • Stuart DeCew and Sophie Janaskie, CBEY Leads
  • A project team of 2-3 CBEY students (each working 10 hrs/wk in the fall semester)
  • Doug Rand, YLS and SOM alumnus and CBEY Expert in Residence
  • Additional faculty at SOM and/or F&ES

To apply for this independent study, please send your resume and a one paragraph statement of interest to Sophie Janaskie (