Risky business

SBA's innovation office invests in solutions to problems that don't yet exist – like the 2007 seed funding for research into an effective Ebola treatment.

Shutterstock image: ebola virus.

SBA's innovation office invests in solutions to problems that don't yet exist -- like the 2007 seed funding for research into an effective treatment for the Ebola virus.

The Small Business Administration's Office of Investment and Innovation is known for taking chances on risky ideas.

About seven years ago, for example, the National Institutes of Health used Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding for a project researching an Ebola antidote. "NIH took a bet in 2007 that we would have to worry about this in 10 to 15 years," SBA Chief Technologist Nagesh Rao said.

It seems their bet was right.

Fast forward to today, with the world confronting an Ebola outbreak of unprecedented scale. An effective treatment for the disease remains elusive, but Rao says the NIH program shows how organizations use SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) funds to begin addressing problems that might not even exist yet.

As part of its SBIR and STTR programs, technologies that seem routine today – think 3D printing -- were developed more than 20 years ago, with seed funding from the National Science Foundation through the SBIR program.

"SBIR tends to finance riskier stuff," Rao told FCW.

The SBIR program, established in 1982, is designed to increase "private sector commercialization of innovations derived from federal research and development funding," according to the SBIR website. Since its inception, it has awarded $38 billion to research-focused small businesses.

Looking ahead, Rao says the biggest focus is in figuring out how to get agencies in the SBIR program to cross-pollinate with each other — part of his role is in facilitating those connections.

Rao, 33, came to the agency about a year ago as an "entrepreneur in residence," acting as a senior policy advisor at the Office of Investment and Innovation. Since then he has been named to the chief technologist role and works with Associate Administrator Javier Saade and Deputy Associate Administrator Pravina Raghavan to oversee the SBIR/STTR Program across 11 federal agencies. For the last few months, Rao and his team have been working on the relaunch of the SBIR.gov website, which he expects to be complete by early 2015.

The revamped site is expected to provide all the data from the SBIR/STTR program in one centralized platform and do a better job showcasing examples of current and past projects in order to encourage other agencies to get more involved," Rao said.

"Part of what we need to do better is highlight those successes."

NEXT STORY: It's too soon to abandon CIOs

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