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Doing Business with DARPA: A Guide for Small Business

Posted by Ed Bard on

DARPA logoThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Small Business Programs Office (SBPO) serves the small-business community by creating an environment within DARPA that considers small-business concerns as a primary source of innovative solutions. SBPO helps expand small-business relationships and training opportunities within the Department of Defense (DoD) and other federal agencies, and enables the small-business community to create and transition radical, game-changing technologies that benefit national security, the federal government, and the commercial marketplace.  The Small Business Programs Office supports small businesses by helping firms understand the DARPA mission while directing firms to appropriate technology offices, agencies, and other resources for funding opportunities.

The SBPO oversees DARPA’s participation in federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.  The SBPO also offers commercialization and transition assistance to Phase II SBIR and STTR awardees to increase the potential for performers to move their technology into the military services, other federal agencies, and/or the commercial market.

Breaking Down the SBIR and STTR Programs

The SBIR and STTR programs help the Agency explore high-risk concepts and ideas without the expense of larger programs.  They provide up to $1.6 million per project for promising technologies as well as leverage unique skill sets and novel ideas to address high-priority military needs.  Finally, they test and evaluate alternative or solution subsets to reduce risk.

The SBIR program provides opportunities for small businesses to participate in federal government-sponsored research and development.  To be eligible for the SBIR program, firms must be a U.S. for-profit small business performing work in the United States with 500 or fewer employees.  The firm must perform a minimum of two-thirds of the effort in Phase I and half of the effort in Phase II.  The firms must also have the principal investigator spend more than half of the time employed by the proposing firm.

The STTR program was created to stimulate a partnership of ideas and technologies between innovative small business concerns and research institutions through federally funded research or research and development.  The requirements for the STTR differ slightly from the SBIR program.  Firms are required to be a U.S. for-profit small business of 500 or fewer employees; while there is no size limit on the research institutions, they both must perform work in the U.S.  Research institutions must be a U.S. college or university, FFRDC, or nonprofit research institution. While small businesses must perform a minimum of 40 percent of the work in both Phase I and Phase II, research institutions must perform a minimum of 30 percent of the work in both Phases.  Small businesses must manage and control the STTR funding agreement and the principal investigation may be employed at the small business or research institution.

Three Phases

The SBIR and STTR programs are comprised of three phases. Phase I is a feasibility study that determines the scientific, technical, and commercial merit and feasibility of a selected concept. Phase I projects are competitively selected from proposals submitted in response to solicitations. Each solicitation contains topics associated with stated federal government needs. The Phase I selection process is highly competitive, with about one of 10 submitted Phase I proposals receiving awards.

Phase II represents a major research and development effort, culminating in a well-defined deliverable prototype (i.e., a technology, product, or service). The Phase II selection process is also highly competitive. Successful Phase I contractors are invited to submit Phase II proposals as there are no separate Phase II solicitations.

In Phase III, the small business or research institution is expected to obtain funding from the private sector and/or non-SBIR government sources to develop the prototype into a viable product or service for sale in the government or private sector markets.

Getting Involved

DARPA participates in three SBIR solicitations and one STTR solicitation per year.  For firms and research institutions to take part, they must first determine their eligibility.   As requirements differ for each program, it is imperative that applicants understand limitations before moving forward. Next, applicants must find a topic.  Current solicitations can be reviewed at to identify topics of interest. On the Solicitation page, you will find the Solicitation Instructions and Topics for each DoD Component. Use the topic search to filter by component and search by keyword.

During the solicitation period, communication between small businesses and topic authors is highly encouraged. During the Pre-Release period, applicants may talk directly with topic authors to ask technical questions about the topics.  For reasons of competitive fairness, direct communication between proposers and topic authors is not allowed during the Open period when DoD is accepting proposals for each solicitation.  Next, applicants must prepare their proposals. All SBIR and STTR proposals must be prepared in accordance with the DoD Solicitation Instructions and the DARPA- specific Instructions. All SBIR and STTR proposals must be submitted electronically through the DoD SBIR and STTR Electronic Submission website at and in accordance with the program solicitation. All complete proposal packages not marked for deletion will automatically be submitted at the solicitation close date.

Transition and Commercialization

The Technology Transition and Commercialization (T2C) Team administers the DARPA SBIR/STTR Transition & Commercialization Support Program (TCSP). The TCSP is a voluntary participation program offered to DARPA-funded SBIR/STTR Phase II projects during the contract period of performance, which typically lasts 24 months. The goal is to increase the potential for these companies to move their developed technologies, solutions, or products beyond Phase II and into the Department of Defense military services, other federal agencies and/or the commercial market.

The T2C Team provides many services including reviewing and providing feedback to the company on their transition and commercialization plan; facilitating introductions to potential funders, collaborators, and partners; providing business planning and assessment tools; and documenting project milestones and transitions successes in profile reports.  TCSP participants are able to join in kick-off and periodic teleconferences with the T2C team for support such as material development to determine technology readiness; resources to increase visibility of the project; and demonstrations, conferences, and training events to mature technology and company bench strength.

DARPA knows that the ideas leading to breakthrough technologies for national security often start small. To maximize the pool of innovative proposal concepts it receives, DARPA strongly encourages participation by all capable sources: industry, academia, and individuals.  DARPA maintains and encourages a culture of innovation and the ability to execute rapidly and effectively. To do this, the agency recruits individuals, who are at the top of their fields—from industry, academia, and government agencies—to tackle difficult challenges and to take big risks that push the limits of their disciplines.

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