Episode 9 - SBIRLand Interview with April Richards from the EPA (Transcript)

Dr. Nate Warren:  Welcome back to SBIRLand. I  am Nate Warren. I am with Eva Garland Consulting, and I am joined today by April Richards. She is the SBIR Program Manager at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Thanks so much for being with us today, April.

April Richards:  Thanks for having me.

Dr. Warren: Can you start off by describing the mission of the EPA, the EPA’s SBIR Program, and then a little bit about your role?

Ms. Richards: Absolutely. I have been working on the EPA SBIR Program for a long time, and I always love to start with the EPA mission because I think it is so important. It is short and sweet, but very important, and that is to protect human health and the environment. We are basically looking to support small businesses that will develop technologies that will help us support that mission, and the goal of SBIR is commercialization, so we want technologies and companies that are going to really take a technology to the marketplace. I do feel like a lot of companies that apply to our program really care about the impact of what they are doing so there is sort of a balance between the social impact and the commercial impact.

Dr. Warren: Fantastic. What is your role at EPA?

Ms. Richards: Sure. I am EPA’s SBIR Program Manager, and I have been doing that for quite a while. I really like that job because I get to work with the private sector, and I get to work with different parts of the agency, so I have a nice exposure to a lot of different areas.

Dr. Warren: That is great. A job that is a little different every day, right?

Ms. Richards: Exactly.

Dr. Warren: Are there any unique aspects of the EPA’s SBIR Program relative to some of the other federal agencies that a company might be exploring?

Ms. Richards: Sure. I don’t always like to lead with this, but I often do: EPA is the smallest of the SBIR agencies across the federal government. Probably the most important thing for a company to know if they’re going to apply to us is what the topics are that we announce each year. Each year we will identify some priority areas. We will advertise those, and that is what will be included in the solicitation. We really want proposals that are responsive to those topics so that our success rate and funding rate is on par with other agencies. We do fund all of our projects with contracts so that’s one unique aspect. Then, just tooting our horn a tiny bit, we’ve worked really hard over the last couple years to streamline our review process and tailor it to the SBIR Program. Small businesses can expect to get funded now in about four months after they submit the proposal, which is a lot faster than we used to do it.

Dr. Warren:  Great. I am sure the companies appreciate that speediness. May I ask you a little bit more about the grant versus contracts? What does that look like in practical terms for a small business who’s applying?

Ms. Richards:  Sure. Really, the contract is just the funding mechanism. It doesn’t really change the dynamic of the project that much, but it probably does change the deliverables and how companies get paid. With a contract, we do require monthly reporting, so companies would have to submit a monthly report, and then they would just bill each month, too (i.e., drawing down their contract on a monthly basis). I think that’s the biggest difference versus a grant.

Dr. Warren:  I also know that the EPA SBIR awardees are provided with a technical expert. What is the goal of this relationship? What types of input are you hoping this resource can provide to your companies?

Ms. Richards:  Absolutely. Thanks for this question because I do feel like this is something EPA can provide beyond our funding. We pair each company with what we call a technical point of contact (TPOC) in the agency. This could be somebody that has really deep technical knowledge in how an air sensor works, for example, or it could be just someone that really understands the topic, knows about materials, and what EPA priorities are. They definitely know what the EPA perspective is. They can serve as a mentor. They could provide some guidance if needed and I think, more importantly, maybe help make connections. Maybe there [are] industry groups or other networks of folks that would be interested, and that TPOC can help make those connections.

Dr. Warren:  That sounds like a really wonderful thing that you are able to provide. I know you mentioned some special topics of interest. Can you elaborate any more on that? What special, specific topics of interest are out there now that listeners should be aware of?

Ms. Richards:  Definitely. Again, like the other small agencies, EPA does one solicitation per year, and that solicitation is typically released in June. We identify the priority topic areas ahead of time and we hope to announce those in the late-May, early-June timeframe. Broad topic areas stay the same, for the most part, from year to year. They align with the way EPA is organized, so we have topics like clean and safe water, air quality and climate, homeland security, sustainable materials, and safer chemicals. Almost every year we have topics in those areas. Then, under those broad topic areas, we’ll have fairly specific topics and those are what we really want companies to be aware of. That’s where they’re applying to those specific topics. I will say, the best way to find out what those topics are [is from our Listserv].

If you search Google for “EPA SBIR,” the Listserv is one of the first bullets on that homepage. Just sign up there. We’ll send an email out when the topics are released, and we’ll also do a webinar. We always do a webinar before solicitation goes out that will tell you the topics, how to apply, the deadlines, etc.

Dr. Warren:  Great. We’ll make sure that Listserv is easy to find for folks who are listening when this gets posted. What advice do you have for a first-time SBIR applicant? And what sorts of things are you looking for at the EPA in an application? How would you increase your chance of success with the EPA?

Ms. Richards: That’s a really good question. I will just say that we really encourage first-time applicants to the program. We really want to broaden participation, so I would love it if you are a first-time applicant. First of all, you could start by reaching out to me. I’m more than happy to talk to folks ahead of time, so please feel free to reach out to me. Again, look at the topic areas. If you know you have a technology in one of those topic areas, that’s a great start. Otherwise, you might want to consider another, bigger agency. Checking out that webinar ahead of time will help you make decisions about whether it’s worth submitting a proposal or not. Again, for first-time applicants, we’ve tried to kind of make the review criteria a little easier or on par with companies that have a larger track record. If you don’t have a track record, at least show us that you have potential to do certain things. We’ve really tried to even that out in the review criteria to keep a level playing field.

Dr. Warren:  Well, you’ve already kind of started getting to this point, but I was going to ask about the review process. Who are the reviewers? How are funding decisions ultimately made? Is there a pay line?

Ms. Richards:  Yeah, that’s a good question. We evaluate proposals on technical merit, commercial potential, and the relevance impact to the topic area. I will say we are the EPA, so we get really excited about how much carbon you prevent or if the material’s compostable or you’re reducing toxins. We do get really excited about the environmental impact, but we also very much care about technical merit and the commercial potential. Even in Phase I, we really want to see commercial potential. The criteria are detailed in the solicitation, so the number one piece of advice I can give to anyone applying is to check out those criteria. It is a process-driven way that we look at proposals, so address all the criteria to the best of your ability. Maybe some are a home run, maybe some are a single or a double, but you’re going to get a score on each of those criteria, so make sure you respond to all of them. We do have internal reviewers that will look at technical and relevance criteria, and then we do have external commercial reviewers that look at commercial potential.

Dr. Warren:  Great. Is there any opportunity for folks who get a middling score to come back in as a resubmission?

Ms. Richards:  We do resubmissions. We are kind of a small agency, so you can resubmit, but you have to come back [as a] Phase I. You’d have to come back another year and you’d have to make sure there was a topic that was appropriate. So it’s possible, but it just would have to sort of work out.

Dr. Warren:  How about an example of an EPA SBIR success story? How was this company able to leverage the funding they received from the EPA to go on to achieve some level of commercial success?

Ms. Richards:  Sure. One of our most famous SBIR companies is probably Ecovative. It’s a company out of Albany, NY, and they developed a sustainable mushroom material that replaces non-renewable petroleum-based materials, such as styrofoam. It’s a very cool technology. It’s disruptive. It replaces an existing material that’s sort of ubiquitous. I think we funded them originally for structures. They were going to do wallboard or kind of things like that in a building and in the built environment. They have leveraged that technology to do [other things]… They’re doing clothing now. They’re doing furniture. They just spun off a company to do bio-based food that’s mushroom-based so it’s very cool. It really addresses the life cycle perspective, which EPA really cares about. The feed stocks are renewable, the end-of-life of the materials, low-embodied carbon, just thinking about all of the impacts that any technology would have on the environment. So, that’s a really good example for us.

Dr. Warren: That’s really cool, April – having just one little idea with one particular application that has just exploded into something with applications across industries. We really appreciate you joining us on SBIRLand today. Is there anything else that you think listeners should know about the EPA or about your SBIR program?

Ms. Richards:  My pleasure. I really appreciate you having me. I do really believe strongly in the EPA mission, and I do think having small businesses support that mission, like these entrepreneurs who come in with these great ideas, we really need that. I am kind of it for the SBIR Program for EPA, so if you have questions or you want to reach out to me, just send me an email and I’ll try to get you steered in the right direction.

Dr. Warren: Fantastic. Thank you again. If you are a listener and you want to learn more about how EPA’s SBIR Program can help fund your good idea, check out epa.gov/sbir.