Episode 6 - SBIRLand Interview with Eileen Chant from the Deparment of Energy (Transcript)

Dr. Nate Warren:  Welcome back to SBIRLand. I’m Nate Warren and I’m with Eva Garland Consulting. Today I’m joined by Dr. Eileen Chant. She’s the outreach manager for the SBIR/STTR program at the US Department of Energy. Thanks so much for joining us today, Eileen.

Dr. Eileen Chant:  Thank you, Nate. I’m happy to be here.

Dr. Warren:  Can you just start off by describing the DOE’s mission, their SBIR program, and then a little bit about your particular role?

Dr. Chant:  Well, I’m really glad that you asked about the DOE mission, because I think that in general, people are aware that one of the DOE’s missions is to provide leadership and clean energy technology. But something about the mission that many people don’t know is that the DOE has a mission to provide leadership in advancing basic energy and engineering sciences, as well as nuclear non-proliferation. So we have a broader mission than most people realize. That’s important when you’re trying to align your R&D topics with the DOE SBIR program — that the topics are broader than what most people think.

Dr. Chant:  The mission of the DOE SBIR/STTR program itself is to advance the DOE’s mission in terms of developing early stage, high risk technology and utilizing small businesses to advance our mission. We provide over $300 million a year in SBIR/STTR to advance the mission of the DOE. I am the Outreach Manager as Nate mentioned. My job is really to talk to small businesses and elevate awareness about the program. I want to de-mystify the application process. We provide a lot of webinars on helping people wade through the application process and also administer some application assistance programs as well.

Dr. Warren:  That’s great. Yeah. Very broad mission for those that were not aware. What would you say are some of the most unique aspects of the DOE’s SBIR program compared to maybe some other federal agencies’ programs?

Dr. Chant:  There are differences. The SBIR programs are the same and different. There’s 11 agencies that have SBIR programs. For the DOE, the topics are very focused. They’re aligned with the DOE mission and the topics are very specific. Some agencies have broader topics. I often use NSF as an example: NSF will fund almost any topic that they believe is a good idea and is a good early stage, high risk idea that has commercial potential. That’s not the DOE. You have to look at our topics and see if you’re a good fit with the topics that are released.

Dr. Chant:  We have two releases a year for Phase I. Phase I is the entry point into our program. It’s important to know that in July topics come out and November topics come out. You do need to go to our funding opportunities pages, look at the topics, and see if what you’re working on is a good fit with the topics that are released. I guess just one other thing I’ll mention that is different about our program is that we do require letters of intent. Those are submitted about six weeks after the topics come out. That’s an important thing to keep your eye on when you’re pursuing a DOE SBIR application.

Dr. Warren:  You mentioned the subtopics that DOE has for the SBIR program. There seem to be program contacts that are associated with each of these subtopics of interest. What sorts of information or feedback can these contacts provide to prospective applicants?

Dr. Chant:  And that’s also a really good question and another way in which all the agencies are different. Get to know your agency. Even if you end up somewhere other than DOE, get to know the rules of your agency. But as far as topics, when the topics come out and the subtopics come out, there are contacts listed. You should read the topic very carefully. You should be familiar with the technology area. And from the time the topics open until the time the applications are submitted (a period of three months), you may reach out to the topics manager and ask questions about the topic. Please don’t try to sell them your technology. That’s what the application is for. Don’t try to tell them about your company, but ask very specific focus questions so that you best understand what they’re looking for.

Dr. Chant:  Now, I do feel compelled to say that the topic managers are very busy. Many topic managers will respond to your email and start a conversation with you. Some topic managers unfortunately are not responsive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to reach out and ask questions. You should keep trying, give them time to answer, and you should also keep them very focused on what you’re looking for.

Dr. Warren:  Great. Yeah, those program officials can be such a valuable resource to applicants as you’re preparing. How do you think that the pandemic has affected DOE’s SBIR program or its daily operations?

Dr. Chant:  Well, we are all working remotely, but as we’ve discovered, for our office, it’s working fine. We are humming along. We are not delayed as much. Now when you call our hotline, in some cases you will have to leave a voicemail, but please email us with questions. We respond to all email questions. We’re proud of our responsiveness when questions come to our sbir/sttr@science.doe.gov. And in addition to that, we have allowed for certain extensions: no cost extensions for awardees and delays some delays applications, to the extent that it’s possible. If you have as an awardee or as an applicant that has been impacted by COVID, whether it’s through getting COVID and being sick and not being able to complete your application, or if you’re an awardee and the lab that you’re working with is just working at its usual pace, et cetera, we do have allow for application extensions and no cost extensions to your work.

Dr. Warren:  That’s great. Just a little bit of extra flexibility during this time. That’s great.

Dr. Chant:  Yes. To the extent that we can still run our program on time, as well.

Dr. Warren:  Certainly. What advice would you give to a first time SBIR applicant?

Dr. Chant:  If you’re a first time DOE SBIR/STTR applicant, I would encourage you to look into our Phase 0 application assistance program. If you go to our homepage and you go to our applicant resources page, there is a link there to go to Phase 0. It is only for first time DOE SBIR/STTR applicants. You can have applied to a different agency, that’s fine. And then you become eligible for this program. You receive one-on-one coaching with our contractor and they are experts in our application process. So you really receive a lot of one-on-one assistance walking you through this fairly complicated application. Make sure your R&D is a good fit with the topic. That’s critical. Read the funding opportunity announcement, get to know the document, and get to know all the application requirements and allocate time for this process. Once the topics come out, there’s a three month window to prepare your application. You have to count on a total of 100 to 150 hours invested in your application. Plan a schedule, put a little bit of time in it every week, and don’t do things at the last minute.

Dr. Warren:  That Phase 0 sounds like such a great program. That’s a really great thing that the DOE does. Can you explain a little bit about the review process and then how funding decisions are ultimately made?

Dr. Chant:  Well, I’ve already stressed that you want to make sure that you’re proposing and being responsive to the topic. What you’re proposing is responsive and helping to solve the problem that’s posed, but the application processes. For Phase I application, there are three review criteria. One is your technical approach or scientific approach. A Phase I application shows feasibility of an idea. You have an idea. You want to prove the feasibility — a proof of a concept study. So you have a good work plan, a good technical approach to proving feasibility. That’s one of the three merit criteria. The second one is have you put together a good team, is your team qualified to carry out the research? You should be. You don’t need a PhD, but you should have expertise in your area.

Dr. Chant:  You are expected to be able to carry out the work. We do allow for subcontractors. If you need a material specialist that’s not in house or something like that, please round out your team. Don’t put people on that don’t need to be on. You don’t necessarily have to bring in someone with a really high profile name, but the people should have the expertise to carry out the work. And then finally the potential impact of your idea on the area of technology. Those are the three areas in which the merit criteria are based on.

Dr. Warren:  Great. So who are the reviewers? Are they DOE officials? Are they previous awardees?

Dr. Chant:  The reviewers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them are from the national labs. Some are from private industry. They are all experts in the technology area as well and they have also been determined to not have a conflict of interest in terms of maybe being a competitor of yours or anything like that. They are technical experts that don’t have conflict of interest in the area.

Dr. Warren:  Great. Are there any 2022 initiatives that DOE is undertaking that applicants should take particular note of?

Dr. Chant:  For Phase I applicants, I want to mention that the Phase 0 program is very popular, but we have expanded it. We are allowing 25 to 50% more participants, but you should apply early rather than late during the award of the application — the time that the funding opportunity is open. We have expanded our Energy iCorp Program, which is for Phase I awardees. That’s an awardee resource. And then we also hired a new Technology to Market Advisor in our office; her name is Carol Rabke. She is there to help applicants and awardees with partnering needs. So if you’re looking for a manufacturing partner or you’re looking for a testing lab or an expert, or a consultant of some type, you can call or email Carol. She’s on our staff page and she will help you with your partnering needs. That is a new initiative that we have that I think is going to be helpful for applicants that need to build their team.

Dr. Warren:  That sounds like a fabulous resource. Yeah, I think applicants should certainly reach out if they need that help. Do you have an example of a DOE SBIR success story? How was this group or this business able to take the funding from DOE and go on to achieve commercial success?

Dr. Chant:  If you go to our website, we do have a number of success stories. We call them Phase III success stories because Phase III is when you’re out of the SBIR program and you’re receiving either other government funding, like you have a DOD contract or something like that, or private sector investors or you’re selling. It’s non-SBIR funding. Just to pick one from that page, there is a company listed first. Their name is Twelve and they used to be called Opus Twelce. They started five or six years ago as three Stanford graduate students out of school. they received a number of SBIR Phase I and Phase II SBIR grants from two of our different program offices: our energy efficiency and renewable energy office and our basic energy science office.

Dr. Chant:  They developed a catalytic process, which uses renewably generated electricity and any kind of waste carbon dioxide stream plus water to create high value chemicals. And they utilized the SBIR as seed funding. It is early stage funding. So they utilized their funding to develop the process, develop the technology, build a world class team within their company, build their lab capabilities, and technology demonstration. That is what the grants are for. That does allow you to go out and leverage other opportunities. And since that time they’ve received $57 million in investor funding from a variety of investors in their technology. This is taking carbon dioxide out of the air, which we know is very important for mitigating climate change, and turning that carbon dioxide into high value chemicals. And as you know, chemicals are ubiquitous in our society. They’re everywhere. If you look on your desk right now, they’re in all your equipment and furniture and everything. It’s an exciting company and they’ve built up from three employees to in excess of 40 employees at the moment.

Dr. Warren:  That’s great. If a company has reached out to a DOE program official, had some conversations, and they ultimately decide that they might not be a great fit for the DOE SBIR program, but they have an early stage company with a high risk project, what are some of the other sources of funding in this area that you think might be something to look into?

Dr. Chant:  I mentioned before there are 11 agencies with SBIR programs. So you should visit sbir.gov. That’s a website hosted by the Small Business Administration, which oversees all of the SBIR programs. They list all the agencies, all of their solicitations, and they provide links to the sites, for the different agencies. You should look at other agencies. We’re not in competition with each other. We want you to find funding for your great early stage idea. There’s Department of Homeland Security and I mentioned NSF, which funds a very wide variety of topics. There’s Department of Defense, there’s Department of Education, and the Department Of Agriculture… Go to the sbir.gov site and see if there’s other opportunities for funding other than the Department of Energy.

Dr. Chant:  I do want to mention, there’s one SBIR program in the Department of Energy that our office does not administer, and that is ARPA-E. Their mission is to fund really highly disruptive energy technologies, like things that are going to really change things dramatically. You can go look at that site and talk to people there. And you can always reach out to the topic managers and say, “Hey, I’m not a good fit, but are you interested in this? This is what I’m doing.” You can receive funding outside of SBIR for research and development. You can receive DOE funding outside of SBIR. And you can also suggest a topic to the topics manager. “Hey, this is an idea I have. Maybe it’s a good potential future topic.” So don’t give up if the DOE is not for you. There are other places to look for funding for your early stage ideas.

Dr. Warren:  That’s great. Yeah, it sounds like communication is key. Eileen, we appreciate you so much for being with us on SBIRLand today. Each agency has its own nuances. It’s so great to learn more about DOE’s SBIR programs specifically. So thank you.

Dr. Chant:  Can I just say one more thing in closing? One of the policy directives of the program is to encourage and foster participation by underrepresented groups. We are always looking to elevate awareness of the program with women-owned small businesses and socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses, as well as businesses that are in underrepresented regions of the country. Please reach out to me if there’s any opportunity to do outreach and in particular, we welcome applications from underrepresented groups. Thank you.

Dr. Warren: Excellent. If you’re a listener who is interested in the DOE SBIR program, you can check out energy.gov/science/sbir.