May 3, 2022

Funding the Future with the Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski SBIR/STTR Program Director at the National Science Foundation

Capital is the fuel that drives the innovation ecosystem. Grants can make up an important component in funding and catalyzing innovation. The biggest source of grants is of course the US government through numerous agencies and programs. Today we talk with Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski a Program Director for the SBIR/STTR program at the National Science Foundation. We talk about the programs available to small companies, how the NSF is evolving, and how Austin fits into all of this.

Grants and other nondilutive funding are key for...What's next Austin? 

Podcast Production Services by EveryWord Media
Our music is “Tech Talk” by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 License

Episode Highlights:

The NSF deploys a lot of capital to research institutions and early-stage companies

  • 25% of all basic research in the US is supported by NSF Grants
  • $8.5 billion budget deployed across 11,000 projects and 1,800 intuitions involving over 300,000 individuals
  • America’s Seed Fund (new home of SBIR STTR programs) awards about $200 million per year in R&D funding to start-ups and small businesses. 
  • Greater than 50% of phase 1 proposals in FY20 went to first time applicants
  • 95% of Phase I awards in FY20 were awarded to startups with less than 10 employees

They are also introducing new programs and evolving process

  • The iCore program that is training scientific team individuals and helping them translate their technology (what is the difference between features, benefits, and value propositions)
  • The Convergence accelerator that supports merging technologies across sectors
  • Pathways to Enable Open Source Ecosystems (POES), whose goal is to fund new open source ecosystems

We discussed a bit the great stagnation theory that we covered in our interview with Jason Crawford

NSF wanted to tap into the excitement of SXSW and felt it was an important platform to announce some of their new initiatives like the Technology Innovation Partnerships (TIP) directorate


Michael Scharf: Austin continues transforming into the next innovation powerhouse. In this podcast, we explore how central Texas is growing the people and companies, the industries, and infrastructure, the macro and micro trends that come together to create the future of Austin. I'm Michael Scharf advisor, and consultant to FinTech, cyber and environmental companies.

Jason Scharf: I'm Jason Scharf a biotech executive in early stage investor..

Michael Scharf: And this is Austin. Next

Jason Scharf: Capital is the fuel that drives the innovation ecosystem. When talking about startups, we've mostly focused on the equity side of the equation. Grants, however, make up an important component in funding and catalyzing innovation. The biggest source of grants is of course the US government.

There are numerous agencies and programs. During the past few years, there's been a surge in new organizations and institutions as well. They've also focused on scientific grantmaking today. We're talking with Ela Murawski a program director for the SBIR STTR program at the National Science Foundation.

We talked about the programs available to small companies, how the NSF is evolving and how Austin fits into all of this. Ela manages several technology portfolios, including advanced manufacturing, mobility, semiconductors, photonics and energy storage. For two decades, she's engaged with startups and small businesses as a founder executive officer and scientific lead on the development of technologies involving medical devices, photonics for displays semiconductor electrons.

Renewable energies nanomaterials and biotechnologies. She built strong collaborative partnerships across industry, academia, and federal labs to commercialize technologies that resulted in sustainable business models. Ela holds a PhD in physical chemistry from University of Colorado, a BA in chemistry from Columbia university.

And completed a national research council. Post-doctorate at the national Institute of standards and technology are current efforts focused on supporting resilience and sustainability and technology.

Ela, welcome to the Austin Next podcast.

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: Thanks for having me, Michael and Jason.

Michael Scharf: Let's start with the basics, the role and mission of the national science foundation and specifically the SBIR and STTR program.

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: So the national science foundation was established in 1950 with the mission to promote the progress of science to advance the national health prosperity and welfare and secure the national defense and for other purposes. So the main rule of NSF is to really support fundamental breakthrough research.

And in fact about 25% of all science and engineering basic research in the U S is supportive through NSF grants, the foundation as a whole evaluates over 40,000 proposals each year to determine where are approximately eight and a half billion dollar budget would be most impactful. NSF supports over 11,000 projects, comprising 1800 institutions involving over three.

Thousand individuals and the SBIR STTR program, which we actually more informally call America's seat on now recently moved into NSF new directorate called the directorate for technology innovation partnerships, also known as TIP. This directorate created was created to address critical needs to advance the geography of innovation, engaging communities throughout the country.

That for too far too long, have been unserved or underserved in the nations research and innovation endeavors. And so our focus at the seed fund is on supporting really the earliest stages of technology development, where companies are often at this stage too risky for private investment. We definitely differentiate ourselves.

We have about $200 million per year in R and D funding to startups and small businesses. And what we like to tell everybody it's very prominently on our website is that we don't take any. From these companies. So it really allows them to, you know, think about the idea and, you know, function and create around that idea individually and with teams how they prefer to do so.

And to give you an idea of the companies that we fund more than half of all phase one proposals awarded in FY20 are first time applicants. 95% of the phase one awards and were awarded to startups with less than 10 employees and 81% of the phase, one awards and 21, some startups that were established within the last five years, as some other distinguishing features with program include our merit review process, which I think we'll talk about a little bit later.

But just to touch base on it briefly here. You know, we look at technical merit, which is the innovation. What is it? Is it highly innovative? Does it meet our solicitation requirements for groundbreaking research broader impacts, which is that societal impact. And then also commercial potential.

Is there the possibility for this company to exist with a sustainable business model and we're very much interested in highly innovative technology. And solutions, highly innovative solutions as well as ones that have the potential to solve society's most pressing needs and the potential to provide that sustainable business model and our program, each company has the potential to be awarded about $2 million in non-diluted funding.

The idea is. You're the company is focusing on de-risking the highest risk aspects. The most challenging aspects, the things that I always tell people, what is it that keeps you up at night where you don't think that this is actually going to work? And that's where we want you to focus on, to see if that can be, that you could overcome those technical challenges and make that groundbreaking innovation and.

The goal basically is to get the companies to a stage where private investment could continue the commercialization.

Michael Scharf: I liked the fact that you highlight that this is an area where it is way risky for the company and especially too risky for investors. Because this is an area where the government can really make a difference and bring in a nice seed fund, you know, $2 million give or take not bad.

And it allows these companies to do this first phase of research and begin the process towards that MVP kind of product. What are the areas that you're now looking at and how has that evolved over the time that you've been at the NSF and, and doing these American seed program?

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: So I would say, so we don't really focus on any particular topic areas that the NSF goes really broad, far reaching, and really trying to get the innovative ideas to come to us.

Michael Scharf: But what are you seeing in terms of the different types of programs and the different types of areas of study?

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: So, so we do have some, you know, major areas that we see people, you know, applying to one of them is life sciences. Another one is electronics, internet of things and robotics there's advanced manufacturing materials.

Photonics and semiconductors. And then we also have information technology. So those are kind of like the broad groupings. They're not indicative of where we're putting effort on their indicative of where we're getting proposals from and where our competitive review process values and finds the high, innovative, highly innovative aspects.

So, you know, that touches on sort of our review process and you know, what, what is considered competitive in our program.

Michael Scharf: So. The SBIR STTR now America's tip America's Seed program, sorry. Have been. Programs that have gone on for awhile. They've been very successful. You guys are out there promoting this.

Are there other examples of programs like this that are at the NSF?

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: So we have different programs based on the different stages. So America seed fund is the one that really allows. From outside of academia to apply to the program. So they, so we see a larger difference in demographic of who is applying to the program based on the fact that the PI, you know, can be coming from industry and may have, you know, decades of industry experience may have five years of industry experience that may have seen.

You know, some problem, both in the insight and industry that they would like to tackle that it's not available to them in the, in the, in the infrastructure that they're currently working in the other programs we have our partnerships for innovation would just basically it is a program that helps to fund that previously NSF funded, basic research, and it is an exploratory research towards a prototype to really kind of de-risk that technology.

Bring it a little bit. More out of the lab, into a state where the now industry stakeholders could take a look at it and determine whether or not it's something that, that would solve a, you know, pain point problem in society and in the commercial markets. Another one we have is iCore, which is support of that.

And that really is for training the science scientific individuals that are on these projects. To understand, you know, what's important. When you think about translating your technology, you know, understanding the difference between features and benefits and what value propositions are, and really live, being able to listen to understand what the customer pain points are.

So convergence accelerator. Is another one, which basically supports the merging of innovative ideas and approaches and technologies from a diverse range of sectors and experience. So the, you know, it it's, it's the emerging innovation, but how do you actually bring those together in a collaborative way?

So people with different expertise in different areas can be, you know, co-creating solutions. That can solve problems, complex problems. And then the last one that is most recent and the new is pathways to enable open source ecosystems, which is also known as POEs. And the goal of this is funding new open source ecosystem, managing organizations to catalyze community driven development and growth of open source ecosystems.

And so that's where TIP really comes in is how do we really engage a broader swath of our country and communities because. Great ideas come from a variety of different places. And so, you know, gaining that engagement and re gaining that engagement from a younger age all the way throughout even adulthood, how do we get those ideas to come to us so that we can, we can support them and help them grow from fledgling ideas into impactful innovation.

Michael Scharf: I want to drill down on one area that you've mentioned, and that was semiconductors semiconductors to become a very important industry here in Austin. What are you guys looking at now in the semiconductor space? I mean, if you look at the news, it's always about, well, it's two nanometers or four nanometers.

And what does that, what does that kind of thing mean? What are you guys see.

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: Well from a, you know, from a high systems level perspective, we're looking at all the different aspects. My, my personal portfolio is advanced manufacturing. And in that portfolio, I'm looking at how do we bring back, you know, resilience in our supply chain for those particular technologies and what can we do?

What were, what, what are the hurdles for reassuring and what can we do to solve those hurdles? I'm looking at, you know, basically solutions being presented in that area and identifying wants that are most promising. And then of course, I now have a semiconductors portfolio and in that one we're actually looking at what are the new technologies that are really going to drive the applications.

You know, what's really going to be driving communications and moving communications needs higher. Energy consumption and you know, all the different pain points that are keeping these technologies from becoming widespread. So those are sort of two different portfolios with two very different perspectives on what is what's going to drive sort of the markets.

And of course, I always go back to the Senate. It is having those individuals who are presenting these ideas, really understand those markets and understanding what the pain points are of those markets. I, I, as a program director see certain things, but I don't see everything there. There isn't that opportunity.

I have the opportunity to observe a review process, engage with experts in the field to help review the proposals and provide. But at the same time, you know, there are so many, so many factors and stakeholders and individuals working in these areas that that knowledge is, is key and, and networking through the system to understand those pain points is really important.

Michael Scharf: Let's get down to the nuts and bolts. What's the process by which an individual PI or a small company applies for a grant through NSF on the TIP program

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: so we have the very initial recommendation I have. It's always to go to our website and visit the resources tab. And there's a little part that says for applicants and we have weekly webinars.

We have two recordings. One is actually by myself and one is by my colleague, Ben Schrag about the different aspects of the program. One is, you know, basically how to apply in terms of your, how to get feedback on your idea. And the other one is actually how to, you know, sort of compose that proposal.

That's the beginning. And then we have weekly webinars, but our staff by anywhere between one and three program directors to, to ask questions about the program and the benefit of that, I always say is now you're with your colleagues on a call. So you get to hear what they ask. And also they get to hear what you ask them and together you can get a better picture of the program.

Once you get that, that downs We S we recommend you submit a pitch, which is basically. A synopsis of your idea. You talk about the technical innovation. You talk about the market where are you intending on, on trying to commercialize this technology and why do they need it? And then the team and company.

So a little bit of background on what the company is and you know, what the purpose, the mission and who the folks are that are driving this. And then the technical challenges section, which is basically what are, what are the unique challenges to your new, innovative approach? Creating the solution for society or commercial markets.

And so that pitch, what if you get invited to the pitch and basically you will then be able to submit a full proposal. If you don't get invited to the, to the program, then we usually, we provide you with feedback as to, you know, Why it wasn't particularly a good fit for our program. It could be because it's not meeting a solicitation requirements or perhaps it wasn't well enough to post and said, we'll ask for some additional details and that you're really getting that one-on-one with the program director,

Michael Scharf: the difficulties of always writing that pitch deck.

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: Yes. The difficulties of writing with pitch deck, but you know how important it is because when you go to private investment firms and it's very important as well.

Michael Scharf: One of the biggest advantages if you will, of this program, is that it's feedback loop in terms of the feedback that an applicant gets from a technical point of view, very different from the feedback they might get from a, an angel investor or a seed stage early stage VC.

Talk about the selection criteria and how that gets applied in practice.

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: So we have. In what we call intellectual merit review criteria. The first one is a technical merit, which is how innovative is the solution. How much does it differ from the current state of the art and how much could the value propositions driven from that be different than what the current state of the art is.

Then the second one is the broader impact, and this is, you know, that, how does this. Help society as a whole. And this one can, you know, can be varying. We have in our solicitation, some guidelines that were drafted from Congress about what is considered to be broader impacts, and then also the commercial potential.

And that is where. Just as you would do some research on what your technical innovation is, what the technology is and have some scientific rationale behalf behind that to also have some commercial rationale behind it, having done some investigation and some initial you know, discussions with stakeholders, we have.

For our process, we invite basically three minimum, three reviewers to review the proposals. This could be an ad hoc review where just the reviewers will review each of the individual proposals individually, or they will, you know, potentially. Come together after reviewing and do account discussion. So what the output of our program is is the, the individual reviews plus the panel summaries.

And so that is a synopsis of what the discussion regarding the panel summaries of synopsis, the discussion of what your technology is as you'd buy, you know, three individual experts in the field. So

Jason Scharf: let's step back and look at the NSF position in the broader innovation ecosystem. So we recently had on Jason Crawford from the roots of progress to discuss progress studies and what's been going on.

And one of the big issues that we discussed is the, you know, the great stagnation theory, which posits that outside of a few key areas, internet genetic engineering, there's a, been a considerable slow down of innovation over the last 50 years compared to the previous 50. Let's just start with during that time period, what have been some of the NSF big successes?

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: You know, I appreciate that. Jason mentioned in the internet and genetic engineering at some, you know, big progress points. Some of the other aspect I would like to point out are, you know, computer visualization techniques, which really have allowed rapid design and testing, and many, many different manufacturing environments and, and design environments that without that I don't.

Be where we are at then also, if you think about when the internet first began there were only a few hundred websites, but searching even the small number, wasn't a straightforward task. And so NSF had funded basically the digital library initiative. For which two graduate students were working on this project being Larry Page and Sergey, Brin, Google.

So that's made a pretty significant impact on how you know, how our society is functioning today. I also like to point out additive manufacturing. And so where, you know, in manufacturing, we've always thought about subtractive and, you know, taking. Big block and then taking stuff away from it. And now we're approaching it from an additive perspective.

It is, it's amazing what this has enabled in terms of potentially reassuring manufacturing in the United States. And so that early research was also funded by NSF and, you know, basically two. We have footwear jewelry, automobile parts using 3d printing technologies. I then I guess the last one I might say I always want to say that, you know, from fundamental research often comes the inspiration for that new revolution.

And so in, within the last, even, you know, 50 years, I would say even less than that, you know, we've been able to actually measure gravitational waves from space. And, you know, this was a theory positive by Einstein over a hundred years ago, but we measured it like in, in this timeframe. And that is, you know, sort of the beginning and inception point of potentially some new and interesting science.

And then also we. Took the first photo of the black hole. And so now we can actually understand, begin to understand a little bit more about the physics and dynamics of that, that particular type of system, which could also open up new and exciting avenues for research. And it always takes time before that fundamental research does touch the acts like us individually, who didn't even know it might have been happening, but it, it, you know, in many cases it does.

It is about that time difference between the initial inception and the societal benefit that we see

Jason Scharf: . It's a good point. When you think about a lot of the basic physics and chemistry research that was done in 1900 to 1920 is what was the propellant for that? You know, the nuclear age and jet jets and everything that kind of happened in that, you know, the transistor, et cetera.

The fundamentals that are happening, you know, now in the last 10 years. And I think one of the things that's of course, and my background is all in life science. You know, we may be heading into the, you know, the bio age now, but which has been 35, 40 years of, of research now getting us kind of the tools that we need.

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: Exactly. And then, and, and so I always say, you know, science navigates this. If we see the, if we have the opening to be very general and we see where people are naturally gravitating towards, it allows for this kind of co-development and community development towards solutions and the, the NSF has less prescribing as a, as a foundation.

And so, and, and that's, that's in the sort of the mandate it's to find the exciting technologies and support them.

Jason Scharf: We obviously all live in interesting times with the, you know, the pandemic the last few years. And one of the things that's happened a little bit before the pandemic, but you saw it a lot more since is an explosion of kind of these new grantmaking institutions.

So you had fast grants, emergent ventures. Institute for progress Parker Institute for cancer immunotherapy. And what I've been finding interesting is it's all about kind of speed and scope. So fast grants, which was during the pandemic was deploying 10 K to 500,000 in under 14 days. And a lot of the seem to be the response of the governmental body.

Wasn't either from a size of scope or a speed perspective, kind of meeting the needs. How is NSF evolving right now to kind of meet these needs? Given the challenges.

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: So I just want to take one step back and just mention, you know, first it was a truly unprecedented, unprecedented time requiring multi-pronged effort from the community as a whole, including, you know, the government entities.

And it might be of interest to note here that it was based on. Government funded science, which laid the groundwork for the MRNA technology used by many companies and the development of the vaccines to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, you know, the underlying technology what's there and if governments hadn't funded this, then basically it would be difficult to even have that sort of building off point.

So then pivoting it back to. The entrepreneurial perspective and and specific with the NSF you know, America Seed fund, we did receive additional funding during that first year of the. And we did release like COVID 19 dear colleague letter to encourage new technical innovations from entrepreneurs in response to the various detrimental aspects occurring as a result of the pandemic.

And so while we didn't necessarily have the average turnaround time of, you know, 14. Days you know, we did have funding coming from that. When that letter came out in March, I think it was March 25th, 2020, you know, we had a pipeline and we're actually starting to fund folks, you know into it. So maybe not as fast as one would like, but still you know, that's pretty quick considering that we have a pretty in depth review process to sort of be able to, you know, vet competitively, all of the different.

Ideas that were coming to the program.

Jason Scharf: I also think was interesting. I hadn't heard of this before, but you mentioned earlier this, the, the funding of like open source communities, which I find an interesting evolution because I'm sure we'd gone back to NSF. I don't know, 30 years ago. It probably wasn't that.

So how are you seeing new initiatives such as that really influencing how you engage with the broader committee?

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: So this is, you know, a very new directorate TIP directorate. And so that, and the, and the POES effort is also very new. And so we're still in the process of sort of, you know, seeing how this is all going to sort of evolve in time.

But, you know, the importance of it is really understanding that. We want to build an organizational culture of innovation and then really foster public private partnerships to advance technological innovation and translation. That's that's the purview of this directorate. And so the key goals of TIP include, you know, elevating the U S competitiveness in key technology areas, driving.

Rapid impact for critical societal challenges and fostering education. And that's an important one to really help build our pipeline of, you know, stem, the stem workforce. And then the. Yeah, sort of the approach to this is that these programs are paired with experiential opportunities to ensure that the students that are currently looking to to pursue stem degrees or maybe even not, perhaps those experiential opportunities will encourage them to, into stem degrees and that they're ready for tomorrow's innovation ecosystems.

Jason Scharf: So a lot of different changes, a lot of evolving. What are the challenges that NSF faces going forward when it comes to catalyzing innovation

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: so, you know, I would say again that we're really looking at trying to engage the broader community. And so the challenges I would say would be in really trying to have, have that ecosystem.

And that's what we're trying to build right now is that sort of research. Innovation ecosystem throughout in the different localities of the United States to really be able to draw and to that talent that's there. You know, I think there was one moment that I was reading about, you know, one of the, one of the reasons why one was not why there was not a great stagnation in the 50 years prior as some say was because there was the education provided.

To populations who typically weren't having access to education. And so that, you know, being able to really make that broader outreach to the community and those have those opportunities there for more people than we have historically in the past will be something that's going to be key in driving innovation in the future.

Jason Scharf: Well, I want to pull a thread on the localities in the changing here.. So this episode actually came about because I met some people from NSF at south by Southwest, obviously a huge, you know festival and conference here. And the director was one of the featured speakers. How does an event like south by fit into the mission?

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: So, well, south by Southwest is touted as a place to showcase ideas, form partnerships, solve unique problems and generate buzz. So it made sense for NSF to be a part of that, you know, and we had our booth there and it was tremendous to see how many people did stop by and didn't really know what we were doing or what we had done or, you know, in the past, in terms of funding, the research that we'd funded.

So it was great to be able to really. Tap into that excitement that south by Southwest has, and NSF is advanced the full spectrum of fundamental recent research and education, all fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and stem for more than 70 years. Now, NSF was basically the ideal venue for us to announce and launch the new TIP directorate.

Tip is going to open up new possibilities for research education, and it's going to catalyze strategic partnerships, linking academia, industry, government philanthropy, so civil society community as a practice to cultivate a 21st century local regional and. Innovation ecosystem. And it's going to ensure us leadership and critical technology areas and addressing our national and societal challenges for decades to come.

And so, you know, being able to announce that all at south, by Southwest, in front of a, you know, engaged audience, you know, focused on technology, but also, you know, we, you know, would spill over from. Educational aspects. And then also having artists, you know, in the mix and basically having this ecosystem of people with varying backgrounds you know, it was a great place to be able to, to make that announcement

Jason Scharf: well, and it fits right in, you know, our podcast, we are looking at the, you know, the local ecosystem and how it affects both here and then the national innovation itself as well.

And so we always like to end our podcast with the same question. So you, you got a taste of Austin here at south by what's next Austin?

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: Well, I would say. We're we're always engaging great ideas from all over the country. And Austin is a, an ecosystem of entrepreneurial innovation. And so, you know, we're always looking to see what your fantastic ideas are.

So please do come to visit us at American seed fund it's NSF seed fund that got up. And so we will. We'll be excited to see what your new and fantastic ideas and innovations are to help society and make the world a better place.

Jason Scharf: I love it. Ela Murawski program director for SBR STTR program that national science foundation.

Thanks for being on the podcast.

Elizabeth (Ela) Mirowski: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure being here.

Jason Scharf: So what's next Austin. We're glad you've joined us on this journey. Please subscribe on your favorite podcast. Catcher, leave us a review and let your colleagues know about us. This will help us grow the podcast. We'll continue bringing you unique interviews and insights.

Thanks again for listening. We'll see you soon.