Ben: Hi everybody. Ben Solomon here. Coming to you from an absolutely sweltering September day in Washington. But everything is cool with our guest today here, Dr. Genevieve Lind from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), who runs the NOAA SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) Program.
Welcome, Genevieve. How's everything?
Genevieve: Great, Ben, it's great to be here. And it's especially great to be here from the cool Pacific Northwest.
Ben: Yeah. Where are you calling in from actually?
Genevieve: I'm in Olympia, Washington, just south of Seattle.
Ben: Oh, nice. I just had a really fun Seattle trip, actually, in spring where I got to meet with a bunch of the incubators and investment funds. It's a great, great spot to live in.
Genevieve: I just moved here in spring myself, so (I’d) need to connect with all those incubators and everyone.
Ben: Oh, sure. Yeah, let's introduce you to some good folks. Let's make that happen. But Genevieve, yeah, tell me a little bit about what you do. And maybe even just for the audience. Give us kind of a NOAA 101. NOAA is an incredibly important agency, especially right now. And just a little bit of your background and then the background of the agency.
Genevieve: Yeah, absolutely. In my current role, I manage the Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR program for NOAA. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, and the mission at NOAA is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.
The shorthand for all of that is science, service, and stewardship. So, the key areas of the NOAA mission are Climate, Weather, Oceans, and Coasts. NOAA's work involves monitoring and measuring changes in those four areas. And, in some cases, mitigating the negative impacts of changes in those areas.
NOAA is made up of a lot of different components, including conducting research ourselves in labs that are located across the country. We also partner with existing research institutions through our cooperative Institute's program. We fund research as well through programs like the SBIR program, as well as a number of other opportunities. We also participate in a variety of public-private partnerships to advance innovation across the NOAA missiion space.
Ben: Yeah, fabulous. And I guess tell us more generally, for folks that are maybe not as familiar with what SBIR is. So, the acronym for Small Business Innovation Research. How does that work? How do companies get started? And I know NOAA’s program is very unique. What's different about Noah's program than others out there in government?
Genevieve: Yeah, absolutely. If you're not familiar with SBIR and the companion program, STTR, or the Small Business Technology Transfer Program: these are congressionally mandated programs, where federal agencies who have a research and development budget over a certain amount have to reserve a portion of that funding, which is 3.5% at NOAA, for small businesses to participate in federal research and development.
Ben: Could you just share for a moment how SBIR works? What the dollar amounts are? What type of company might be most interested in looking at your SBIR program?
Genevieve: For sure. So, with the NOAA SBIR program, we are looking to invest in innovative technologies with strong commercial potential across the whole NOAA mission space that I mentioned before. When an SBIR program issues a solicitation for proposals, they usually provide some kind of list of the types of technologies or ideas that they're looking for.
These are usually called research topics. At NOAA, we issue broad topics rather than narrowly defined topics. And these broad topics help us encourage innovative solutions to big, hard-to-solve problems in the NOAA mission, rather than NOAA-defined solutions to NOAA-specific problems. The last few years, our topics have been based on agency-wide strategic documents, and are currently based on what's called the NOAA Water, Weather, and Climate Strategy, which was developed by technical experts across the whole agency.
We are looking to invest in technologies at a very early stage with the NOAA SBIR program starting with Phase I. Our Phase I program supports feasibility and proof of concept testing over six months of performance and for up to $175,000. If that gives you a sense of the scale of a Phase I project.
Ben: And that's non-dilutive, right?
Genevieve: Yeah, absolutely. Fully non-dilutive funding. The intellectual property belongs to small businesses, we don't take any equity in the business. It's basically free money, although you do have to work pretty hard to get that money. It is certainly a competitive program across all the agencies.
From Phase I applicants are eligible to move into Phase II, where we support further research and development for two additional years and up to $650,000. With our program, we use grants as a funding mechanism, and we are looking for technologies with broad commercial potential. NOAA isn't necessarily going to be a customer of the technologies developed through the NOAA SBIR Program. We work with companies at a variety of different stages, but we're particularly interested in brand-new companies that are just starting up and trying to get new technology off the ground.
Ben: I always make the joke that SBIR is kind of like the biggest seed fund in the world that, unfortunately, very few entrepreneurs actually know about. We're trying to change that at FedTech, as I know you are at NOAA but really just like the scale. And we see a lot of great companies leverage SBIR for some of that very first product development. We've had just dozens of our alumni companies from FedTech go on to really use SBIR as a mechanism to have non-dilutive capital like you mentioned, Genevieve. Grow a product line, be able to go and raise outside capital. Right?
I think investors are very interested to see if you can leverage SBIR umm is some of that initial funding in being able to get to that demonstration point that Genevieve mentioned data Phase II.
I guess a question for you, Genevieve. We work a lot with the DOD (Department of Defense) SBIR program. And it has in some ways the advantage of the Phase III customer very often being the Defense Department, where the DOD can have SBIR is that the products will eventually be bought at scale, and even a scale that will often support a whole business from the DOD. Where do most NOAA Phase IIIs come from? Any perspective on that?
Genevieve: Yeah, it's a good question. I think there is. It's hard to define a typical NOAA SBIR project because we see such a diversity of technology types, missions, objectives that are being met, and ultimate success stories for what success looks like for that company. One of the things that's really cool about the SBIR program that maybe not everyone is aware of is that for Phase III, when it comes to government customers, any SBIR technology developed at any agency is actually eligible for Phase III award at any other federal agency that's looking for that specific technology.
One of the great things about the NOAA mission is that our mission overlaps with the mission of a lot of other agencies that have SBIR programs, including the Department of Defense, the Navy SBIR program, but also USDA, NASA, EPA, etc. We do get to see a lot of cross pollination of these SBIR funded ideas. We funded Phase IIIs from SBIR projects that were initially funded by NASA. Our early SBIR projects go into Phase III with the Department of Defense, or NASA, etc. No typical path, but a lot of really cool overlap and opportunity within the NOAA mission space.
Ben: You obviously are all really at the forefront of investing in technologies that will hopefully do things like slow down climate change, and I just actually wanted to read some of the categories that entrepreneurs can apply to for NOAA SBIR. Category One: extreme events and cascading hazards, Category Two: coastal resilience, Category Three: the changing ocean, Four: water availability, quality, and risk, Five: effects of space weather, Six: monitoring and modeling for climate change mitigation.
If you superimpose these topics over on a typical news day you can see the importance of the work that you all do. The climate is getting more and more dangerous, and really grateful to have Noah doing this type of work.
I'm curious, personally, what is it like to work at an agency that has this mission and at this moment in time? And then for your colleagues also- what's it like? What kind of people wander the halls at NOAA?
Genevieve: Yeah, absolutely. Those are all such important challenges, and really timely challenges. And it's so it's so amazing to be able to get up every day and work with people who are really just trying to solve these really important problems- both in my colleagues across the agency, who are all amazing experts in these technical challenges and opportunities, as well as the innovators that we work with in support. One of my favorite parts of the program is when we have our kickoff meeting with a brand new cohort of awards and we usually do introductions to all the technologies. And there's all of these connections that even happen in these meetings, because a lot of those challenges are intersecting and overlapping. And it's inspiring to be able to do this work every day.
Ben: Your background is very different. And I was just curious if you could share a little bit about your journey from the lab to market, so to speak, to now running a program like this.
Genevieve: Yeah, absolutely. Before I was in this role, I worked in technology development and translational research at the National Institutes of Health. First as a science policy fellow and then as a health program specialist. I grew up in a small rural community in Montana, where I didn't have access to a lot of information about different career opportunities. I ended up getting a broad liberal arts education focused on social sciences. Through a process of trial and error, I found my way to science and eventually earned a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Montana. I think I was drawn to neuroscience because it's a deeply interdisciplinary space. I was able to study chemistry, electrical signaling, physics, biology, psychology, physiology, mathematical modeling, pharmacology, and many other areas. I developed a really strong breadth of scientific expertise.
Ben: I found some really well-produced talk show piece with you. The neurology, pharmacology and poultry, the SciShow. What was it? Thought you were great there.
Genevieve: Thank you. That was a really cool opportunity that came about because the sideshow, the founder—Hank Green—is based in Missoula, which is a really great asset to the community there. I did a lot of outreach and science communication as a grad student and was able to participate on that shows. It was great fun.
Ben: Sorry, I interrupted you. Tell us more about the intersection of neurology and pharmacology. And if you want to bring up the poultry piece, too.
Genevieve: The poultry piece, there's not necessarily a connection. The main tool I worked with in grad school was frog eggs because they are a single cell that you can see with the naked eye, and we use those to do the pharmacology and electricity studies that I did as part of my dissertation. The poultry part was because on the SciShow there's always an animal guest at the end of the episode, and the guest for my episode was chicken. We got to meet the chicken but I think the connection was with the eggs that I worked with, and chickens make eggs themselves.
Ben: What a great idea. For my team listening, the producing team here, we should definitely incorporate the animal on every show would be enjoyable, even though we're audio-only.
Genevieve: That’d be great. We may get a visit from one of my cats. Let's see.
Ben: So, the AAAS is obviously a wonderful program. At FedTech, our startup studio is where we take entrepreneurial talent, pair up those entrepreneurs with inventions from federal labs, and in that process, help them start new companies. For a while, we had a very consistent flow of AAAS fellows who were interested in entrepreneurship and would participate in our programming and even a couple of companies get created. But I just, yeah, love to hear about your experience with AAAS. I'm guessing. Is that what brought you to DC?
Genevieve: Absolutely. This (AAAS) program is such a cool opportunity for PhD level scientists- I think. What brings a lot of us there is that we get to the end of grad school and realize that maybe a career at the bench itself is not what we want to do with our time. But we are all passionate about science and using science to make change. The AAAS science and technology policy fellowship takes PhD-level scientists and places them in federal agencies across the government to both bring scientific perspective and information to the policy-making process. And also to allow the scientists to develop skills and learn about the policy-making process itself. It's a really, really cool opportunity.
After grad school, I ended up working at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center at the University, where I earned my PhD- which got me really interested in the intersection of science and business. That's how I ended up at the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in the Office of Translational Alliances and Coordination, which was basically the tech transfer and SBIR office for Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. I've been working in that space ever since.
Ben: Yeah, interesting. Backing up a little bit. You worked at an accelerator/ incubator at University of Montana. I'm just curious what kinds of companies get started in Montana? I've never been; I've always wanted to go. I hear that there's a really good kind of burgeoning innovation ecosystem.
Genevieve: Yeah, the innovation ecosystems in Montana and Missoula, specifically, are really exciting and rapidly growing. I was new to that space, coming in as a pure scientist. And part of the work that I was doing was to kind of help bring the scientific community a little bit more into that entrepreneurship and innovation space. Talking to faculty and students and researchers in early parts of that process to understand how that transition from pure basic research science to really that translational science can take place and what that can look like.
We saw such a huge variety of technology types in the launchpad. Everything from main street businesses, restaurants, wedding planning companies, all the way up to high-tech companies looking to translate a lab-based technology into a veterinary application. So a lot of really exciting things happening at the University of Montana.
Ben: Okay, yeah. And that's where you got the startup bug? It sounds like a little bit.
Genevieve: It's hard to shake that.
Ben: I'm grateful to someone like yourself, that you're in federal service. It's something that is just so important that we have our best people. At least taking a stop and a swing through government- even if you go into the private sector later. But I'm curious- can you tell us more about that decision point. For PhDs in neuroscience, you have a lot of options. A lot of places you could go. What kind of brought you back into government after AAAS?
Genevieve: That's a really great question. I think I really love the service component of public service, and really feel like I have the ability to make an impact at a broad level. With the programs that I've worked with, and the opportunities that I've had. Especially with SBIR, there's a lot of intersection with not just giving out money but developing policies and processes and programs to make that process more efficient. Or to make sure that the process is accessible and inclusive for scientists from a variety of backgrounds. The breadth of the work that I get to do- not just from a scientific perspective, but everything from program to policy to outreach is all part of what I do in a small SBIR program in which NOAA is one of the smaller programs and smaller agencies. I get bored easily, so I love being able to do such a huge variety of things on a daily basis.
Ben: It's such an exciting time for the government, for science, and for even regional innovation. At FedTech, we closely track and often participate in some of the regional innovation initiatives across the country. This idea is that development and technology-based entrepreneurship can happen anywhere. It doesn't have to happen on the coast. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and some of the thrusts of this administration, this government now, is just really exciting. Exciting time to be doing this type of work in my opinion.
Genevieve: Yeah, it is.
Ben: You mentioned SBIR is extremely competitive, right? You have a lot of really wonderful companies competing for a limited amount of resources. How would you advise entrepreneurs based on your experience to go about everything from understanding kind of the NOAA mission space to going about even simple things like constructing a proposal, building a team, whatever that might be. What advice would you give?
Genevieve: Yeah, it's not an easy simple process and it can take many many hours to develop a successful proposal. It's not something that someone should take on lightly or without their full energy. For NOAA, and I would say probably for a lot of other agencies that have SBIR programs, one of the key components of the process are the review criteria and the review process. That's ultimately what decides what gets funded and what doesn't. The SBIR program is intended to select scientifically and technically meritorious proposals that are innovative and have commercial potential.
With NOAA, the four components of a proposal, which are our four review criteria, are: Science, Innovation, Commercialization, and Team. First and foremost, science is the foundation of NOAA mission. That should provide the foundation of any application to any SBIR program. It represents a significant portion of the reviewer’s score. Applicants should make sure that they're clearly identifying the significance of the problem or the opportunity that they are proposing to solve with the technology that they're developing. And make clear what the technical objectives of the proposal are.
And it's really important with that, to keep in mind, the six-month period of performance and the $175,000. Because one of the key things that reviewers look at is whether what is being proposed is feasible within the amount of time that you have to do it and with the resources that you have to do that.
Another component of that is the team. For NOAA, team and facilities are part of the score review criteria. And you do want to make sure that you are bringing a proposal that already has the resources and the scientific and technical expertise that you need to complete the proposed work. It's important that you have all the intellectual components of a proposal on your team from upfront.
Ben: We get that question a lot from startups. Yeah, how do you signal a strong team? What does a strong team look like?
Genevieve: Yeah, I think that that's a great question. It can be challenging for a really early-stage beginning startup because you don't have the resources to hire all of the team. And there are a lot of ways I think that you can incorporate that. With unpaid consultants to make sure that you are representing the right expertise, or part of the SBIR policy does allow small businesses to contract with existing research institutions to complete some of that work. If you do have a gap in your team in a particular area of expertise, there are free, low cost, or cost resources out there to help build up your team in those early stages.
I think another key component of that can be the customer discovery process. Talking to a lot of people to get yourself in the right direction, and incorporating expertise through the interview process, and by learning about customer needs, can be another way to incorporate knowledge and expertise without actually paying for that expertise upfront.
Ben: As a small company, as a startup, you got to be ingenious. We've actually seen a lot of great success from our startups partnering with universities. A lot of times universities are surprisingly responsive of wanting to be involved in SBIRs as a way to translate what they're working on in a lab environment, and it's often a very synergistic partnership.
One other thing. You were mentioning, Genevieve, around just the proposal process. I wanted to footstomp a little bit, just the importance of for entrepreneurs listening. That element of clarity that Genevieve brought up, right? Can you clearly articulate, you know, again, what's the problem you're solving? What's the solution look like? What are the technical objectives that you're going to achieve for the amount of funding?
It's just so important to have that story come through in a way that's accessible to the reader. We see a lot of really nice, interesting ideas that are occasionally a little bogged down in the technical piece in the jargon and it makes it seem to be a harder lift for those proposals to be successful.
Genevieve: Yeah, absolutely. I think another thing that comes to mind, too, that's related to that is, if a small company or a startup is more used to pursuing venture capital as a resource in these early stages, One thing to keep in mind that's maybe a little bit different with this SBIR process is that we're really focused a lot more on the technology level, and the technology itself and less so on the company and the history of the company. We recently had a company go through the process, and they were really trying to pitch to us like they would to a VC. It really didn't resonate with the reviewers as well.
Ben: My first company was doing robotics-related work and we were very keen on winning SBIRs. I remember it’s very easy to fall into the trap of not talking to and not learning enough about the end customers. For folks that are interested in NOAA SBIRs. Like go online, read everything you can about NOAA. If you get a chance to talk to NOAA staff whether it’s at conferences or trade shows.
Are the reviewers accessible to have a conversation prior to the deadline for the proposal? Is that something that NOAA is able to offer?
Genevieve: Well, they wouldn’t be accessible as reviewers because the reviewers are anonymous. Our reviewers are representatives from across NOAA and outside of NOAA from industry and academia as well. Maybe not focus on having conversations with reviewers specifically but having those conversations with scientific experts across the field to really get a deep understanding of the problem space is definitely something that small business and startups should do before submitting an application to SBIR.
Ben: Absolutely. Well, this is great. Any last takeaways, Genevieve, of what you want the listener base to know about the program or about NOAA as a whole. Anything else comes to mind?
Genevieve: The key thing to keep in mind is that our mission space is huge. And there is probably something relevant within our mission that a company is working on and that has relevance. So, be sure to keep us in mind when you are looking for resources to fund your early efforts.
In general, we are looking to support a broad, diverse group of entrepreneurs and we especially love receiving proposals from people who have never applied before, who can really benefit from that early funding boost and go on to do something great.
And we welcome conversations with these folks at any point in the process and you can certainly email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ve got a whole team of people waiting for your emails. And we also encourage people to check out resources on our website and follow us on social media as well. We are here to help people navigate the process. And it’s important to keep that in mind that we are a resource for you.
Ben: So, you’re saying the government is not a giant inaccessible monolith that doesn’t want to talk to you if you’re an entrepreneur?
Genevieve: I’m doing my very best to ensure that.
Ben: Yeah, it’s always something we encourage folks. To reach out and have a conversation, right? People are actually wanting you to be a part of the solution space which for NOAA, again, is just incredibly important work when you think about the technology that NOAA is making a word on and maturing and growing.
Thank you, Dr. Genevieve Lind, for the work you do. Really exciting to see how your program develops in the future. And grateful to have you on the podcast today.
Genevieve: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.