Episode 1 – SBIRLand Interview with Brittany Sickler from the Small Business Administration (Transcript)

Dr. Stacey Lee: Hi everybody. I’m Stacey from Eva Garland Consulting, and I am also with SBIRLand, and I’m pleased to be here with Britney Sickler from the Small Business Administration. Britney, thank you for joining me today.

Ms. Brittany Sickler: It’s wonderful to be here.

Dr. Lee: I thought we could get started with an introduction to you and a little bit of information about your role at the SBA.

Ms. Sickler: Great. Well, I’ve been with SBA for eight years now, but just half of that time has been focused in the innovation realm. So I started in a district office and was working with some different communities across the country, but specifically on my current team with the Office of Innovation and Technology, we’re the coordinating hub across the SBIR and STTR programs, and so we have a small team. We work on issues related to policy and data and strengthening the programs. And then my role specifically looks at connecting, training, and funding organizations that provide support to potential applicants and awardee. So, how do we really build up a really great cadre of folks that are working on high-risk technologies? How do they get the support they need, and how do we connect them with the agencies?

Dr. Lee: Excellent. To start out with, what advice do you have for early-stage entrepreneurs? Big question.

Ms. Sickler: Well, there’s a lot of advice. It’s a very big question, and not to jump into too deep, too soon, but if we’re especially looking in the early-stage entrepreneurs in the R&D realm working in a wide variety of technology areas, I mean, there’s a lot of challenges, right?

And we can look across the country and see challenges starting all kinds of businesses, but specifically for groups that would be kind of in that potential SBIR realm, making sure to have mentors or people that can help you figure out what your best options are and how to get there is one of the first places I’d start, because even when we look across opportunities in SBIR, it’s complicated and there can be a lot of things to look into. The details matter, and so if you have people that can help you funnel, and kind of mold and shape, or at least give some context, I find that there’s a lot of entrepreneurs who really talk about that being key in the start, because they wouldn’t know how to get there without having at least some insights along the way. And people say that government is hard, so is navigating the VC world. And so, people that can understand government or just any kind of funding process, making sure that the team has that expertise or can tap into that expertise. So especially on the researcher end of things, if you’re looking into commercialization, a whole lab to market sphere, how do you make sure that you have the right skill sets to be able to address that? So I’ll just stop there.

Dr. Lee: No, that’s great advice. I would agree. I feel like the phrase it takes a village also applies to a business. You need a lot of help and a lot of different areas of expertise.

Ms. Sickler: No, definitely. And actually, in the SBIR support organization realm, we do highlight a lot of different kinds of entities that can provide assistance. So everything from like SBIR specific, like our FAST partners, to some of the small business development centers have a good focus, to procurement technical assistance centers. There’s a lot of universities, accelerators. There’s different nonprofit and different kinds of incubators. So it really as some of the best areas in and around the country and including where you’re located, have all of these partners kind of working in concert. And so they’re able to provide different pieces of help and that kind of comes together to hopefully yield some success for everyone involved. For the company, for the technology, and then the community in general.

Dr. Lee: Right. Along those lines, what are some underutilized resources that the SBA provides?

Ms. Sickler: So, our team, and when I talked in the beginning about trying to fund and train our innovations to help, you know, going back to, I just mentioned FAST, this is a program that we have in just under half the states, and it’s expanding, and in 2021 where folks can access quality and free assistance in their SBIR journey. And so, the challenge is for people who are looking at SBIR to know that that exists and be able to take advantage of that. So that’s something that you’re not accessing at SBA, but we’re working to funding these partners and bringing them together to try to provide that so that people can be able to get those insights and get that help to put together a proposal, figure out the agencies. On sbir.gov, we’ve been fully increasing the quality of resources that we have available there as well. And then we are hosting events, and I’ll go into that a little bit later, to bring the agencies kind of alive to the homes of entrepreneurs around the country.

Dr. Lee: Yeah, that’s a perfect segue to my next question. So things were different in 2020, conferences turned virtual, but I wanted to get your input on what you think are the valuable experiences entrepreneurs have at the SBIR road tour whether it be virtual or in-person.

Ms. Sickler: Yeah, for folks that have heard of this SBIR road tour, for several years we would put the agency reps and program managers on a bus and travel around and have these events where we’d be running from state to state. And it was great to be there in person, and for several reasons, I think first of all, that one-on-one interaction where we actually had meetings that folks could sign up for where they would meet with a specific agency, talk through their technology, and they would be able to know, is this going to lead to anything with you? Or how should I approach this from the beginning?

Also in the sessions, we had a great panels where we dissect agencies in a way where it was very easy to understand. So we definitely thought too, and we talked about demystifying, but more so, just more plain language and explaining things in a way where it’s very different than being online.

So in the virtual setting, we’re not on the bus and for us, so we still wanted to bring that connection element. So we still have live panel sessions that at each of our virtual weeks, that we’re regional focused in 2020, and we did do online meetings. And in fact, the benefit of not being in person, we had more agencies than ever participate. Particularly for the smaller agencies who weren’t able to take that time to be with us on the bus, or just the number of people that were allowed to travel was smaller than the number of that could show up online. So our one-on-one sessions were fantastic in 2020. And we’re also looking at how some of those partners were connecting in the road tour. So how does that applicant see all of that ecosystem that I was describing earlier? And so virtually we were able to talk about the host and all the groups that worked with them, and then be able to still connect them after this is done, here’s where you go, here’s how you access all of that assistance.

Dr. Lee: And do you think for 2021 they’ll continue to be virtual?

Ms. Sickler: 2021 will be virtual. In our planning now, and with the agencies, that’s going to be our of our best bet. And so it’s not necessarily for public release, but we are anticipating two events, two large events this year, one focused on the support organization community. So particularly developing some programming for those ecosystem builders, for the folks that are interested in either working directly with a potential applicant or creating and fostering a great environment around that.

Now for a lot of people watching, they’re probably most interested in the second event, which will be similar to our SBIR week last year, but much larger. So, now that we actually have an opportunity to plan in advance, last year we had planned on being in person and had to adjust, like many other groups last moment to make them virtual. So starting from a virtual perspective, I think we’re really going to have a very rich program. And even though it’s going to cover the whole country, we’re not going to do regional based events this year. We still are going to try to put as much value and relevant content, and then make it easy for people to understand what would be best for them to check out. So news of that will be coming out on later spring.

Dr. Lee: Wonderful. Okay. There’s also been a push to improve participation in the SBIR program by women and socially or economically disadvantaged persons. I wanted to get your input on how that’s been going so far and in the future, what areas do you think need additional work and attention?

Ms. Sickler: Sure, that’s a great topic to focus on. And for folks who don’t know, or might not be as familiar with SBIR legislation, that’s where it’s explicitly called out in the goals of the program, to increase participation from underrepresented communities. And so we talk about women, socially, economically disadvantaged, and also areas with low numbers of SBIR awards. So our programs, like you mentioned, FAST and our Growth Accelerator prize, both do concentrate in this area. And across the agencies, they are also doing a lot of their own outreach and support to try to both build up the capacity of potential applicants, to be able to reach communities where SBIR might not be as common. It might not be something that someone thinks about, right? Or they might not have any kind of community member that’s familiar with it. So it’s an additional challenge to be able to navigate, like I was mentioning before in terms of the complexity of the programs.

And on the legislation side, there was a, I would say a recognition there that solutions can and should come from a broader base of Americans. And so when we’re looking at the benefits of SBIR, it’s not only technological advances advancements, we’re looking at the economic development, we’re looking at the adaption, adoption, sorry, of technology for the agencies. And so making sure that the more diverse set of Americans that are able to participate, can lead to a much more diverse set of solutions and technologies that end up being funded in the market.

So there’s not a set aside in the program. So most of the agencies are focused on outreach and support, and we’re also looking to study more of the structural elements. So what data’s being collected? What currently is happening? So who is participating? Which agencies and what kinds of companies are they forming? And there’s a lot of questions that we have answers for, and then there’s many that we don’t. So this last year in 2020, our team embarked on a study with the National Women’s Business Council and produced a study on the participation of women in the SBIR/STTR programs. And it was a great place to not only talk about the data we have, the challenges, and what we don’t have access to, or where there might be missing elements, but also on what the agencies are doing and our partners are doing. And so there were quite a few policy recommendations that the NWBC put forward because of that study. And now we’re looking to hopefully engage with other partners to study different elements of SBIR in the future, because it is definitely hard to say what the state is without having access to a lot of that information.

But we do have other ways that we try to keep a pulse on what’s going on. So with our FAST and Growth Accelerator partners, I’ll just highlight, we finished looking at some of the Growth Accelerator assessments from our latest cohort that started in 2019, and 2020, as you mentioned, brought a lot of changes. And so many, or if not most, all of the accelerators took their programming virtual. And they talked about some of the benefits, right? Of being able to access a broader base of participants, but they also talked about challenges. And one of the big challenges last year expressed by many groups was that they actually saw a decrease in participation from women, for instance, that was explicitly called out because of other challenges of what was going on. So when we’re talking about children staying home for school and changes in household structure and duties, so that was something that many of them talked about having to look into adjusting their programming in the future so that they can accommodate, but there’s that recognition piece of what is going on and how is it different around the country? And then what do we do differently from here?

So I think that where it’s going, it’s much easier to have some of these conversations. It’s easier to kind of divide up what we know, and what we don’t know. And I think everyone can agree that we’re looking for incredibly competitive ideas and great technologies. And so, that’s kind of our common ground and we’re hoping to make the program even better by having more participation.

Dr. Lee: Wonderful. My last question to wrap up, what are your goals and your priorities for you and the SBA for 2021?

Ms. Sickler: 2021, we have many goals and it is hard for us, I would say in that there’s a lot of areas for improvement and things that our team is very passionate about. But for me, in my position, my goal for 2021 is really to bring together those ecosystem builders, so that we can address all of these different facets that we’ve been talking about. How are we reaching people? How do they know what’s going on? How do we make sure that people are able to get help, and be able to do these amazing things that they are able to do, but they’re missing the funding or they’re missing some of those other elements around them.

So my goal really is to kind of use our position at SBA as this connector, as this little hub, to an advantage so that the agencies benefit, the entrepreneurs benefit, and then our partners are able to have a stronger role.

In terms of priorities for our team, I think it’s definitely important for us to be extending the program that we do have. So I mentioned, we’re expanding the FAST program. So priority for us is to strengthen the program, and see more of these partners around the country be able to do, you know, it’s not a lot of money, but to be able to do as much as possible with that. We’re also expanding, or have the ability to have an expanded Growth Accelerator program this year. And some additional funding from agencies to run a new prize competition. So our priority is to do those well, and to be able to have a positive impact across the SBIR ecosystem.

Dr. Lee: Wonderful. Yeah. That’s exciting news for sure. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about? Any other comments you had about SBIR or the SBA in general?

Ms. Sickler: I think just some of the last comments all I’ll say is that at SBA, the mission of the agency is to help small businesses start and grow. In our kind of corner of the agency is a little bit more unique where we’re looking at as a specific kind of company. We wish that we could talk to every company out there and help them. But at this point, the structure of our team is just not at the right size to do that. And so we are grateful for all of the wonderful folks, both supported formerly by SBA and not, that are working to make a better SBIR environment across the country. And so I always recommend that people try to connect with the people in their area and that you still reach out to us, but know that we’re not going to be able to take you all the way through it, but hopefully we can still create a great space for those things to happen.

Dr. Lee: That’s great advice. I wanted to thank you, Brittany, for joining me today for this excellent conversation, and listeners and watchers, if you have additional questions or want more information on SBIR or STTR grants, you can visit sbirland.com. Thank you.

Ms. Sickler: Fantastic, Stacey. Appreciate it.