COVID-19 Pandemic Response: SBIR/STTR and Other Funding Opportunities for Small Businesses

During the current coronavirus pandemic, US government agencies have mobilized to leverage the technological and R&D capabilities of small businesses to address a range of problems created by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. With emergency funds allocated to fighting the virus through the $2 trillion CARES Act, agencies have sought ways to fund the rapid development and deployment of new diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, medical devices, personal protective equipment, and other products, in addition to essential research into the pathogenesis and impacts of the virus. To do this, agencies have released a combination of new funding opportunity announcements, emergency Notices of Special Interest, and updates to existing solicitations. Agencies have also temporarily moved away from previously lengthy submission, review, and funding cycles, often adopting a new, more agile approach in which submissions are accepted and considered for funding on a rolling basis. Through this accelerated effort, they have created new opportunities for small businesses to bring innovative products to the market to address the enormous health challenge posed by the virus.

The National Institutes of Health

Many institutes within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have issued Notices of Special Interest (NOSIs) that provide opportunities for active award holders to request administrative supplements or make competitive revisions. These mechanisms expand the scope of existing projects to conduct R&D work that addresses the current coronavirus crisis. These notices focus on areas of pandemic response that align with the institutes’ missions, with the goal of encouraging a rapid response from small businesses and other research teams that are already working on NIH-funded projects. Proposals for emergency supplements or revisions to existing awards are accepted on a rolling basis, and to minimize the time between application and funding, competitive revisions will be reviewed by an internal review panel convened by staff at the awarding institute.

At the time of writing, administrative supplements and competitive revisions to existing awards are the predominant mechanism through which the NIH has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, but other mechanisms are emerging. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) has led the way by issuing a NOSI that expands the Institute’s list of topics for upcoming Omnibus SBIR and STTR proposals to include COVID-19-related research. It seems likely that other institutes will follow suit and encourage new COVID-19-related SBIR/STTR proposals.

Institutes such as the NIBIB and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) have begun to announce COVID-19-focused topics of interest for other grant types for which for-profit small businesses are eligible, such as R01, R03, and R21 grants. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has announced new Emergency Awards to fund COVID-19 research using the R01 and R21 mechanisms. In addition, the NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program will provide funding for a broad range of high-impact research projects into COVID-19 preparedness, prevention, and response through the R01 mechanism. A new non-SBIR/STTR funding opportunity—RADx— was announced by the NIBIB with the goal of funding rapid development of point-of-care and home-based diagnostic tests. These funding initiatives stand alongside other non-SBIR/STTR funding opportunities that are open to small business applicants.

Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA)

BARDA responded early in the crisis by updating its Broad Agency Announcement to focus solely on COVID-19-related research and development and adding new COVID-19-related topics to the Division of Research, Innovation, and Ventures’ (DRIVe’s) Easy Broad Agency Announcement. To enable a rapid response to the COVID-19 outbreak, BARDA has announced the CoronaWatch program to focus on COVID-19 medical countermeasures. BARDA is interested in advanced technologies that have progressed into or beyond clinical trials, have established large-scale cGMP manufacturing capability, or utilize an approved platform.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

On March 25, 2020, the NSF issued a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) (NSF 20-065) that provided an expedited review of SBIR and STTR Phase I proposals from small businesses working on the development and deployment of new technologies, products, processes, and services that could address the COVID-19 crisis. This opportunity closed in early June, but the NSF is still interested in proposals related to COVID-19. There is not a designated Technology Topic Area for COVID-19, and so the small business will need to submit a Project Pitch for one of the standard topics.

Department of Defense (DOD)

Like the NSF, the DOD released short-window funding mechanisms related to COVID-19 in the early spring, such as through the Air Force and Navy SBIR programs and the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). The Defense Logistics Agency SBIR program currently has an open call for certain topics related to COVID-19, such as detection and protection from emerging viral pandemics, as well as economic assessment of pandemics on supply chains.

Other Agencies

Although the NIH, NSF and DOD might be the agencies that first come to mind when thinking about pandemic-response R&D, other agencies have also created rapid-response funding opportunities for COVID-19 research. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) placed an early-response deadline for National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) SBIR Phase I proposals addressing issues arising in agriculture and food production as a result of COVID-19, with the goal of providing fiscal year 2020 funding to these projects. NIFA also implemented rapid-response deadlines for its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. Currently, the USDA is soliciting proposals that address the need to improve distance learning and telemedicine services in rural areas that are coping with the requirement for social distancing.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is seeking innovative commercial products for exposure detection, prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19 and similar microbial threats. Through this contract opportunity, the DHS will rapidly acquire, test, and deploy suitable products.

The non-dilutive funding landscape for US-based small businesses that wish to apply their technologies and expertise to the coronavirus pandemic is continuously evolving and is an important component of the country’s response to the current crisis. If your company has innovative ideas for solutions, a list of current funding opportunities can be found  at https://www.evagarland.com/covid-19-funding-opportunities/#/.


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