Science and technology innovation is an engine of our competitiveness, and small business is its driver. The President’s “skinny budget” threatens this. It proposes suggests radical cuts to NIH and many other science-based agencies. At the same time, science itself seems to be on the receiving end of a consistent assault.
R&D funding in the sciences, and the opportunity for investing in spin-off companies, is an important part of this nation’s longstanding tradition of expecting products that enhance our lives coming via entrepreneurs in the sciences, as through efforts like the federal Small Businesses Innovation Research (SBIR) program. That program has resulted in thousands of innovations, large and small, that have made a significant impact on our lives—and our economy.
Even though the proposed cuts may not survive the Congressional process, we should be clear: any moves to curtail R&D support will impact the ability of promising startups and small businesses to pursue breakthrough work in agriculture technologies, renewable energy and medicine, and thus retard their investment in other areas important to their sustainability: IP, first-round capital, recruiting a team, finding partners and further refining their products.
As someone both accelerating private innovation-led enterprises and channeling commercialization pathways for government-funded research, I believe strongly in the symbiotic relationship between private initiative and public interest. It’s worth asking, though: If it were upturned, would it disrupt this nation’s rich innovation engine?
In the private sector, the genie is out of the bottle. Technology innovation has become a key part of corporate development strategies and even in the absence of federal support in areas considered to be critical to human life—food, fuel and health—we should continue to see technology innovation, especially in critical (and profitable) areas of research. But programs like the SBIR program underscore our need get research into companies that can provide tangible, near-term solutions.
That is why so many large companies adopt “open innovation” approaches in working with smaller innovation companies, who are more nimble in the discovery process. So, for example, while climate change is politically demonized, private industry is taking it seriously—internally and with innovation partners. ExxonMobil is pursuing algal firms to develop cleaner fuels. Shell, BP and Total are investing in wind, solar, and other renewables that they are confident will be a part of the future energy generation mix.
Losing government funding can be a dose of bitter medicine for startups, forcing them to accelerate actions that we, as commercialization professionals, counsel them to take: to quickly build their own essential networks of interested parties, funders, including partners, and customers. They are essential for much needed early-stage support.
But despite some grounds for optimism, withdrawing science funding support still creates a significant challenge and undermines the US pole position in enhancing the earliest stages of discovery and scaling new industries.
Federal funding is a boon to the sciences—we should never expect that the market will “take care” of the earliest phases of discovery. Early-stage federal support is essential to plug the gap between research and commercialization. Few public companies sign up for what the market would regard as “blue sky” research projects; the impact of these discoveries is still hard to measure in next month’s P&L. Government, acting through small, private companies and research institutions, must maintain, and even increase, R&D funding to study these big issues whose impact will be felt across all sectors of our society.
In our Ag Innovation Showcase, where Larta and its partners are curating conversations on agtech, we have seen sustained interest from companies all over the world focused on small companies addressing big-picture issues: the availability, security and traceability of food, the degradation of soil, and the consequent need for smart(er) farming and for establishing new sources of food. In being at the ground floor on these issues, we have sought to identify and give voice to the great task of resolution and approach to these concerns. This underscores the need for continued funding for early-stage R&D.
It is alarming to see the rate of startups dropping in the U.S., as many studies have asserted, since emerging companies are so well-suited to take the leap from the lab to the market, especially with early support from public sources. This terrain is the terra populi, our public inheritance. And we should and can expect the incubation of technologies to solve these big issues to be in our interest.
We must call on our government to keep up the support for and investment in science innovations. It is the surest way to both ensure long-term challenges are being addressed, to further opportunities for private enterprise to take on and build capital, and to ensure our well-being for generations to come.