How do you find the right topic?
Looking for the right topic requires two things: (1) an understanding of your core competencies; and (2) an understanding of the genesis of the Department of Energy’s topics. As an aside, the Department of Energy is referred to as DOE and we will use that acronym throughout. Looking for the right topic is a matching task – one in which you assess if your core competencies can help the Department of Energy address their needs. However, before exploring if there is a match – there are a few fundamental points that you must understand.
- The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs do NOT fund research that has already been accomplished. In other words, if you have already developed a product and are looking to fund a demonstration– this is NOT the appropriate venue.
- Another point to keep in mind is that if you are myopic and ONLY have an interest in securing funding for a research initiative that you have already mapped out – this is also NOT the right avenue.
To find the right topic and to be successful in utilizing the SBIR or STTR programs, you must be willing to examine and understand what the Department of Energy needs and then determine if there is a match between their needs and your core competencies. Without an interest in both, you cannot be successful.
When talking about “your” core competencies – the word “your” can refer to the specialized skills of the individual proposer who is just starting a company, or those skills that are already resident in the small business with which the applicant is affiliated. One assumption that you should make is that to be successful in the SBIR and STTR programs, the applicant must have research skills acquired either through formal training or through experience.
Let’s now begin to explore the Department of Energy’s topics. DOE releases topics twice a year, once in July and again in October. The first topic release (July) contains topics from four participating DOE Research Programs:
The second topic release is in October. This is usually larger and contains topics from a different set of DOE Research Programs:
- Office of Defense Nuclear Non-Proliferation
- Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability
- Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
- Office of Fossil Energy
- Office of Fusion Energy Sciences
- Office of High Energy Physics
- Office of Nuclear Energy
Therefore, depending upon your core competencies, you will want to review either the first or second topic release. Each Topic Release is structured in the same way.
[See PowerPoint] This is most easily understood by taking a look at the table of contents within the topic document itself. The Table of Contents is organized alphabetically by the DOE Research Program’s name. Underneath each DOE Office is a list of topics in bold, with a series of subtopics in regular type font underneath. By scanning the table of contents you can quickly get a feeling for the type of research that DOE funds and begin to assess if these research areas match with your core competencies.
You don’t have to wait until new topics are released in order to understand the types of research that DOE funds – as topic documents can always be found on the DOE SBIR program office website:
However, please keep in mind that closed and open topic releases are found on this same site. Although it is useful to look at the topics at any time in order to develop an appreciation for the types of research that the DOE funds, before deciding which topics you may respond to – it is important that you look only at the topics associated with a current Funding Opportunity Announcement, also referred to using the acronym FOA
Let’s examine where the DOE topics come from. DOE’s mission is to “Ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.” Each year the Department of Energy prepares and submits a budget to Congress to fund initiatives consistent with DOE’s mission. Part of the budget is for research and development conducted by numerous entities including federal laboratories, universities, large industrial firms, and small business. Each of the Offices mentioned in the topics document is responsible for fulfilling part of DOE’s overall mission as it relates to their area of expertise. SBIR and STTR topics are in essence an extension of the method for fulfilling the Department of Energy’s research mission. When you respond to a Department of Energy SBIR or STTR topic you are addressing a national need.
Let’s now return to the question of matching. To do this you must start by being reflective and identifying your core competencies. Let’s assume that you are a materials engineer just starting a new company. You have an interest in high temperature materials and new manufacturing processes. How would you go about finding a good topic? Perhaps the best way to start is by reading the table of contents and using the hyperlinks to jump to those sections that look interesting. As you find good topics, highlight those of interest so you can easily find them again. Another way to ferret out potential topics is to conduct a key word search using relevant terms such as “high temperature”, or “manufacturing”. If you find that you don’t get many hits using this strategy, then expand your search terms.
As you find topics and subtopics that look interesting, consider if you and/or your team have the skill set that could address the problems identified in the topics of interest.