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SPIE leadership urge support for Small Business Innovation Research funding bill

15 September 2009

BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA -- With the U.S. Congress back on Capitol Hill after its summer recess, leaders of SPIE--International Society for Optics and Photonics are strongly urging the House and Senate to pass a bill continuing the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.

Currently the program funding is set to expire at the end of September. Different versions of a reauthorization bill passed the House and Senate in July -- HR2965 and S1233, respectively -- and now await resolve.

"SBIR funding has proved to be invaluable to small companies in the optics and photonics industry," said M.J. Soileau, chair of the SPIE committee on Engineering, Science, and Technology Policy. "In many cases, it has provided early support for technology development that has turned into important commercial products. It is in the interests of all SPIE constituents that Congress work out a multi-year extension of SBIR in order to maintain a robust U.S.-based photonics industry."

One sticking point in the reauthorization process has been whether to allow SBIR funding for proposals from venture-capital-backed companies. In 2001 an administrative law judge's ruling denied eligibility to many venture-backed companies because they did not fit the Small Business Administration's "small business" definition of 500 or fewer employees. As reauthorization negotiations continue, pressure has increased to expand allowances for VC-funded enterprises, particularly in health science applications.

Other differences include an effort to raise the overall agency set-aside for SBIR funds from the current 2.5% to 3.5% over a period of years. An even more controversial effort has been made to change the funding levels for Phase 1 through Phase 3 grants for SBIR projects. Many small businesses are concerned about how such changes will affect smaller companies' access to capital and their ability to absorb relatively large grant amounts while in their start-up phase.

In 2008, the House and the Senate opted to extend SBIR for one year when they could not resolve their disagreements on conditions for a longer extension. After the bills passed this summer, a continuing resolution extended funding through September 30.

The SBIR program, created in 1982, allocates 2.5% of 11 federal agencies' R&D budgets to fund R&D projects by small businesses. The program now makes awards of approximately $2 billion annually. Among companies whose success has been launched by SBIR grants are:

Rini Technologies (Oviedo, FL) has commercialized spray cooling technology with potential commercial applications for high-power industrial lasers used for metal cutting, drilling and welding, as well as the next generation of high-power medical, telecommunications, and microwave devices.

Physical Optics Corporation (Torrance, CA) came up with a fiber-optic, unidirectional, multiplexing system called HoloLink. This technology significantly increases bandwidth transmission over existing fiber networks by allowing video transmission of different signal formats through a single fiber for parallel, high-bandwidth data communication. The company currently holds 88 patents and has others pending, most based on research that was originally funded under SBIR.

Under a DARPA-funded SBIR program, Nanosolar (Palo Alto, CA) developed improved production techniques to create high-efficiency solar cells that are lightweight, flexible, durable, cheap, and easy to produce. Nanosolar has developed a way to produce rolls of thin-film solar cells that are printed directly on the substrate material with an ink made up of nanoparticles containing the proper ratio of elements required to make the cells absorb solar energy.

OptiGrate (Orlando, FL), a University of Central Florida Incubator client, has received SBIR contracts for its high-efficiency holographic elements, commonly named volume Bragg gratings. OptiGrate grew to 17 employees through a chain of SBIR/STTR projects without additional funding.

In the 1990s OPTICS 1 (Westlake Village, CA) developed night-vision goggle simulators under SBIR, leading to commercialization of a head-mounted display for professional use. That was followed by dozens of SBIR contracts serving the medical, industrial, and entertainment industries, and a 2002 Tibbetts Award for exemplifying the very best in SBIR achievement.

SPIE is the International Society for Optics and Photonics founded in 1955 advancing light-based technologies. Serving more than 188,000 constituents from 138 countries, the Society advances emerging technologies through interdisciplinary information exchange, continuing education, publications, patent precedent, and career and professional growth. SPIE annually organizes and sponsors approximately 25 major technical forums, exhibitions, and education programs in North America, Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific, and supports scholarships, grants, and other education programs around the world. For more information, visit SPIE.org.

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