Episode 3 - SBIRLand Interview with Melinda Coffman from the USDA (Transcript)

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Hi, everyone. I’m Dr. Stacey Lee from Eva Garland Consulting and SBIRLand. And I’m pleased to be here with Melinda Coffman from the US Department of Agriculture. Melinda, thank you for joining me today.

Melinda Coffman:  Thank you for inviting me, Stacey. I’m really excited to be here and to talk about the USDA SBIR program.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Why don’t we start off with a little bit of an introduction to you and how you came into the role of program officer?

Melinda Coffman:  Sure. Well, last year a little before this time, I guess, I was consulting and doing some consulting when the pandemic hit and I eventually lost my contract due to the financial fallout from the pandemic. And so I was looking for something else that would interest me when I ran across this position as SBIR coordinator for the USDA.

Melinda Coffman:  And interestingly enough the qualifications fit my education and experience which happened to be quite varied. They fit perfectly. So I was drawn to the position for several reasons, but mainly because it allowed me to use a great deal of my experience and education which was really very appealing to me to use all of those things.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Yeah, the program officer position is quite multi-disciplinary.

Melinda Coffman:  Yes. Yeah, it is. And I have a multi-disciplinary background. Yes.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  So you’ve only been at the role for a short time, but I was wondering what you find most rewarding about your job so far or what are some new things you’ve encountered that you find exciting in the position?

Melinda Coffman:  Well, the thing that’s been throughout my career, the most important to me is to be able to provide a public service for the good of the public. I know that that sounds a little corny, but it is something that’s really important to me and motivating to me. So, I find it very rewarding to give small business owners an opportunity to develop their innovations and ideas. Finding funding for research is not always an easy thing to do. Particularly if you’re a small business. So I’m really excited and I feel a little proud, I guess, to be part of an effort to just move science and technology forward. And at the same time promoting small businesses and giving them a leg up, so to speak.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Yeah. I think that’s one of the reasons we wanted to chat with you because from the SBIRLand perspective, we’re interested in a public service to help entrepreneurs and small businesses get information on how they can get funding because even just finding out how to apply for funding and what is out there is very overwhelming.

Melinda Coffman:  Yes, it is. Definitely.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  So why don’t we talk a bit about some of the initiatives, any 2021 initiatives that the USDA is developing that entrepreneurs should know about?

Melinda Coffman:  Sure. We’re still formulating those. We have a new administration and of course we want to follow the Biden administration’s initiatives. But the one that’s probably most formed, I guess, would be the right way to say, is climate change. So even though climate change was a part of our topic areas and as part of our SBIR grant, we have added some language to most of the topic areas. We have 10 topic areas for SBIR. So we’ve added some climate change language to those. Climate change technologies have always been welcome but just to make it even clearer and so there’s no question. So we are really encouraging those. We also just developed an economic recovery and development committee that I’m on. And that’s part of the Biden administration’s economic recovery initiative. So that’s just formed and we’re just working on ideas with that. So those are both things I’m very excited about and really very happy to be a part of.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Yeah. So that second initiative, is that in response to the pandemic and how to help USDA initiatives and small businesses recover from the downturn of the economy?

Melinda Coffman:  Yes. Yes. That is the initial thing that we’re doing, but it goes beyond that. It goes from the pandemic and beyond. So immediate recovery but also ways to continue economic development and the ways USDA can contribute to that.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Excellent. So do you have any advice for a first-time USDA SBIR applicant?

Melinda Coffman:  Oh yes, I do. I actually have two pieces of advice. One is to begin early. Begin your application process early. Meaning, that you can get everything done that you were able to get done as soon as possible. So for instance, make sure you get a DUNS number, you go through the SAM.gov process and the SBIR. So last October was my first phase one experience and I know we had at least one applicant who was not able to meet the deadline because they didn’t apply to, I believe it was SAM.gov soon enough.

So some of those can take a little while, a month or so. So even if you’re not sure you’re going to apply, just go ahead and do those. It won’t hurt. There’s no costs that I’m aware of. So, do those. 

And then my second piece of advice is really get to know the RFA. We’ll be publishing the phase one RFA in July of 21 and it will close in early October. And so in that time period if you can really read through the RFA and get to know it and refer to it when you have a question. So if you download it and then make it searchable, and then you can search for any questions that you have. The questions that you have can almost always be answered through the RFA. So those are my two biggest pieces of advice.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  That’s great advice. And if someone’s reading through the RFA and they’re still not sure about the answer to their question, are you available via email to connect?

Melinda Coffman:  Absolutely. It’s easy to remember. You can just email sbir@usda.gov. Or you can take my name, which is melinda.coffman@usda.gov. Yes. We’re happy to answer questions and to help problem-solve any kind of difficulties that applicants are running into. So we’re happy to do that. I’m just saying that it’ll save you time if you look in the RFA first.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Agreed.

Melinda Coffman:  Yes.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Wonderful. So could you talk a little bit about the USDA review process and how funding decisions are made?

Melinda Coffman:  Sure. I’d be happy to do that. So once you’ve successfully applied and met that deadline, then we do immediately what’s called an administrative review. Which is basically just making sure that you fell within the guidelines, that you don’t have a 50-page description of your project, that fell within all of that. And so we do that administrative review. And that will knock a couple of a few proposals out, frankly, every time. So that’s good. I’m going back to follow those directions in the RFA for how long each section can be.

Melinda Coffman:  Okay. So from there, from the administrative review, we’ll have a set of proposals and those are distributed to the topic areas, to the national program leaders for each topic area. And then they’re forming panels and the panels of experts they’re from academia, they’re from industry, they’re from nonprofits, they’re from federal labs, they’re from a wide variety and both for phase one and phase two, the panels also use ad hoc reviewers. So we try to get definitely experts in the field and variety from different areas.

Melinda Coffman:  So then they have a review process that go through where several panel reviewers read each proposal. So it’s not just one person. And then they have a whole process they go through. And that applicants receive verbatim copies of those reviews. And then it’s just important to know… This is a little beyond the process, but just important to know that phase applicants, because we have a 15% award rate with phase one applications, then you can reapply, you can take that information that you get from the reviews and adapt your proposal and apply during the next cycle. And of course just I want to be clear that phase two applicants can only apply one time.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  No, that’s really wonderful information. And you might not know off the top of your head. Do you know the success rate for the phase two applications? Or are they generally more successful than the phase ones?

Melinda Coffman:  Yes. Yes. They’re around 45%. It’s a little I think thrown off because we did have some skewing from the pandemic from COVID-19. So, but yes, around 45.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Wonderful. All right. Last question I have for you is a success rate story or a success story from a small business that’s leveraged the USDA SBIR funding. Could you tell us an example of that?

Melinda Coffman:  So one about that I get excited about is, it’s called Altaeros Buoyant Airborne Turbine, but we call it BAT for short. And what it does is it’s a wind turbine that lifts up into the atmosphere where there are higher winds when there is just more and stronger winds consistently. And so it reaches beyond what traditional wind turbines, the height of those. And so it can generate power in remote locations and rural communities. And it’s been a very successful technology. It was featured in CNN inventions and also in the New York Times. And they’ve been expanding. They’ve had SoftBank invest seven million and their technology. So we’re really excited about that. And then there’s gross wind technologies, which has nitrogen and phosphorus, they’re at high levels in all of our water systems in rivers, lakes, oceans. And it really does decimate the fishing industry.

So another company had an SBIR grant and they used their technology, which is an algae-based treatment that actually takes the nitrogen and phosphorus out of the water but makes it available for other uses. So it’s very kind of circular that way. And the technology is called RAB, Revolving Algae Biofilm system. And they recently had a $2 million investment from Doerfer companies. So we’re very excited about that one too. And lastly… Can I squeeze one more in here?

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Yes. Definitely.

Melinda Coffman:  Okay. I love this one. It’s called Green Heron Tools and it’s a line that sells ergonomically correct tools like garden and farming tools for women. So it was a mother and daughter who designed these tools. They did SBIR phase one and phase two. And they did research by doing focus groups and surveys with women asking what they most needed.

And so they started with a shovel and they developed a shovel that was ergonomically correct for women. And they’ve moved on from shovels to all kinds of different tools. And they sell directly and they have several retailers where their Green Heron Tools are sold. So we’re real excited about that one too.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  I’m going to look into those. I got into gardening last year at the beginning of the pandemic. I, like many people got very into gardening. So I’m going to look them up.

Melinda Coffman:  Yes. Yes. I know. I need to get some too. Yes.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Wonderful. Well, thank you Melinda for joining us today. Are there any other things, any topics we didn’t cover that you wanted to add?

Melinda Coffman:  No. I think we covered it pretty well and I just encourage anybody who has questions to reach out to us and we’ll be happy to help as much as we possibly can.

Dr. Stacey Lee:  Great. Well, thank you for tuning in to our interview with Melinda from the USDA. For more information or if you have specific questions, you can also reach out on sbirland.com.