Contributed by: Gary Edge, Vadum and John Ujvari, SBTDC SBIR Specialist
Vadum Inc. is a Raleigh, NC company established in 2004. The company’s primary focus is ib Electronic Warfare (EW), Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) technologies. Currently 100% of Vadum’s revenue is derived from Department of Defense (DoD) research and development programs.
Vadum experienced strong early success with DoD contracts, winning 4 of 8 proposals submitted in response to Broad Agency Announcements for Science & Technology research and development. These awards were valued between $200,000 and $1,500,000 and constituted the majority of early revenue for the company. Unfortunately, Vadum did not experience the same high level of success with the SBIR program, winning only 3 of the proposals the company submitted from 2004-2011. Not content with a win rate close to the national average, in 2012 Vadum committed to understanding and correcting weaknesses perceived by reviewers. The company’s diligence paid off and Vadum won 8 of 19 SBIR/STTR proposals submitted in 2013-2014. Of those eight awards, the company has already successfully converted three Phase I projects to Phase II awards.
As Vadum has continued to work with DoD on both BAA and SBIR/STTR funded projects, they have learned a number of valuable lessons. Vadum and the SBTDC offer these five helpful tips as you consider whether and how to leverage the DoD SBIR/STTR programs to grow your own company.
Five Helpful Tips to Leverage the DoD SBIR/STTR Programs to Grow Your Business
- DoD SBIR/STTR awards can be an excellent way to supplement your research efforts or to start new research initiatives and gain a foot-hold on a new technology. Choose the topics you’ll focus on with care, avoiding the danger of following your curiosity and veering too far out of your core competencies. Play to your strengths as a company and submit proposals for topics where you have a competitive advantage.
- Become an expert in the area! Review the references provided in topic descriptions, as well as papers and patents by those authors. You must gain, and be able to demonstrate in your proposal, a clear understanding of the current state of the art, the limitations of the current technology, and the capabilities of possible competitors.
- Learn as much as you can about the Technical Point of Contact (TPOC) for your topic. This person will be your first customer within DoD, so invest some time learning about their particular expertise and their organization. Learn a bit about Technical Readiness Levels (TRL). TRL is a scale used to measure maturity of evolving technologies. A typical Phase I proposal starts at a TRL-1 or TRL-2 and ends with a TRL-2 or ideally a TRL-3. Achieving a TRL-3 during a Phase I is considered a significant accomplishment and may be the differentiating factor between your company and the competition.
- You have a 30-day window of opportunity to communicate directly with the TPOC – use it wisely. Request a phone call to get their perspective on aspects of the problem that may not be in the written solicitation. Ask relevant questions and don’t waste time (yours or theirs). The TPOC can provide valuable insight on the limitations of the state-of-the-art and explain their expectations regarding TRL for their preferred solution.
- Be prepared to wait. The DoD SBIR/STTR program requires patience. It can take 2-6 months to receive notice of acceptance or rejection of your proposal. It can take several more months to negotiate details and execute the contract. Keep this in perspective. If your project proceeds through Phase II, the DoD will have made a multi-year commitment to your company. As a corollary, remember to plan for other sources of revenue to support the company while proposals are being prepared and are under evaluation.
In conclusion, not every company will have the success that Vadum has had with the DoD SBIR/STTR programs. But understanding the DoD as your customer and investing your time wisely to pursue relevant projects can increase your chances and provide substantial return on investment. As you move forward, we invite you to tap into the SBTDC’s Technology Commercialization Team to help you identify topics, brainstorm approaches and provide no-charge reviews of your proposals. Good luck!