Monday, December 13, 2010

25 SBIR Winners to Watch

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program was created by Congress in 1985 as a tool to promote small business, commercialization, innovation and US competitiveness.

NASA’s version of an SBIR (similar to programs run by other agencies) awards a series of contract “Phases” to small business helping them demonstrate their technologies.  Upon completion of these phases, small businesses would be empowered to independently pursue commercialization of their technologies.

Good for the company: marketable product.
Good for NASA: access to technologies at commercial-off-the-shelf prices

Phase I contracts: $100K (or less) over 6mo.
Phase II contracts: $600K over 24mo.

The SBIR program continues to show great potential, but sadly produces far fewer commercializations then anyone would like. The low commercialization success is driven by several factors (I am sure there are more than these):
  • NASA chooses SBIR technologies that they want commercialized , not necessarily ones that have been analyzed to thrive in the marketplace (SBIRs are more tech development than business development). Check out #24 on my list below for a firm attempting to change this for NASA's biomedical SBIRs.
  • The SBIR program has some companies that win and execute an SBIR through all of its phases, but never commercialize anything preferring the low-risk approach of perpetually submitting new SBIRs without taking the high risk/high reward attempt at commercialization. Have you heard of the term, “SBIR Shop”?
  • Aerospace components don't sell nearly as well as integrated products.  Since SBIRs focus on components (usually), it may take the integration of several SBIR contracts to gain enough components to turn into an integrated product slowing the path to commercialization.

But let’s talk about the good news. Wow, there are a lot of cool ideas in this batch of NASA SBIR Phase I winners. Below is my summary of 25 SBIR Ideas to watch.  To make my list, the SBIR idea had to meet these loose standards:
  • Have a market (I could easily think of) beyond NASA
  • Be hypothetically commercialized by a small firm
  • Demonstrate a space focus (sorry to all of the air-traffic control and UAV SBIR winners, you did not make the list)
Forgive me if I missed the market opportunity from your firm’s SBIR submittal (there were many more winners than the twenty-five I chose):
  1. Advanced Scientific Concepts, Inc. 3D Flash LIDAR real time embedded processing  
  2. Altius Space Machines, Inc. Attractive docking technology
  3. Aspen Aerogels, Inc. Ablative Flexible Aerogel TPS Materials for Mars Aerocapture and Entry
  4. Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation Rendezvous and Docking Technologies for Orbiting Sample Capture
  5. Composite Technology Development, Inc. De-orbit Devices/Technologies for Small Spacecraft
  6. EM Photonics Compressed Sensing for Space-Based High-Definition Video Technologies
  7. Firestar Engineering, LLC Low Cost Carbon-Carbon Rocket Nozzle Development
  8. Gloyer-Taylor Laboratories LLC Reliable, Reusable Cryotank
  9. HKM Enterprises Inc. Interface for grouping multiple secondary payloads into a primary mission
  10. Honeybee Robotics Ltd. Magnetic Bearings for Small Satellite CMG’s & Other Miniature Spacecraft Mechanisms
  11. Hyper-Therm High-Temperature Composites Novel Fabrication Approach for SiC/SiC Thermal Protection System Elements
  12. Innoflight, Inc. CubeSat Power Management Controller and Solar Array Articulation System
  13. Materials Technologies Corporation Durable and Conductive IR witness coatings for High Accuracy IR Thermography
  14. Pacific Design Technologies, Inc. High Performance Space Pump (mentions re-fueling hydrazine on orbit)
  15. Picometrix, LLC Miniaturized Non Destructive Evaluation for In-Orbit Inspection.
  16. Pioneer Astronautics Nitrous Oxide Micro Engines
  17. Powdermet, Inc. Aerogel Modified Structural Thermal Protection System
  18. Rocketstar Robotics Inc Modular Actuators for Space Applications
  19. Sierra Lobo, Inc. A CubeSat-Scale Testbed for Cryogenic Fluid Management Technologies
  20. Technology Applications, Inc. Lightweight Inflatable Cryogenic Tank
  21. Techshot, Inc. Life Science Research Sample Transfer Technology for On Orbit Analysis.
  22. Tethers Unlimited PowerCube: Integrated Power, Propulsion, and Pointing for CubeSats
  23. Tethers Unlimited High Thrust Efficiency MPD Thruster
  24. Virtual Incubation Company, LLC A venture capitalist market assessment of NASA’s Human Research Program Technologies
  25. XCOR Aerospace Cryogenic Composite Tank Fabrication for Reusable Launch Vehicles
Promising Innovations...yes.  But it's long road to commercialization.  Good luck to all of these companies in implementing both their technology and business solutions.


  1. great post!

    i'm trying to to a little math to gauge the profitability of a typical $100k NASA contract, for a small time company.

    1. what's the typical profit margin?
    2. what percentage of the companies' resources is used in fulfilling the contract?
    3. what's the contract period?

    my assumption:
    10% margin
    100% resources allocated (i.e everyone on the small company is working on the contract)
    6 month contract period

    does this mean that a small aerospace company can do nothing else within that 6 months but to fulfill the contract?

    If that's true, it would be a profit of $10k over 6 months. It doesn't sound like a good money maker, plus the team is tied up for 6 months!

    What do you guys think? It looks like a tough grind for these companies, living from contract to contract.

    PS: I also assume that there's someone in the company actively writing proposals to various organizations to win future money. This would guarantee fresh projects.

  2. Fugufish:

    You are right that many of these 25 firms will be living off of their Phase I award in order to execute these contracts.

    About 40% of them will be lucky enough to get phase II grant. and they will live off of those as well.

    At this point, those dollars may not generate any profit for the firm. I could easily see scenarios where every surplus nickels were poured into needed equipment or additional labor resources.

    The real reason I am an advocate for SBIRs are the commercial opportunities they can open up.

    You are right, the next few months for these companies will probably we quite intense as they work hard to convince NASA to award them a Phase II award. Good luck teams!