Podcast: Funding for Innovation

Larta Institute just released its second podcast on Funding for Innovation. When US science agencies face mistrust and cutbacks, federal grant recipients are put in the hot seat. It’s never before been so crucial for science entrepreneurs to tell their stories as innovators and problem-solvers. In this podcast, Rohit Shukla explains how to use the context of the day to help legislators and the public understand the importance of science innovation. In the interest of the future, we should all be a part of supporting innovation, but it starts with you, the innovator, telling your story. Listen below:


Podcast Transcript

Hello, I’m Rohit Shukla, and this is Larta Institute’s podcast series, Ideas, energized.

There has been a lot of confusion and concern around the budget that is currently being debated in Congress around funding for innovation and in particular, for the science-based programs that are driven by research in the big agencies—the big alphabet agencies: NIH, NSF, USDA, and others—specifically oriented toward the SBIR program. And, of course, at Larta we are particularly interested in and committed to the SBIR program: Small Business Innovation Research.

I want to just clarify certain things and provide some context and some tips to entrepreneurs and innovators—in particular, those that are science-based and those that are creating new innovations around these different areas of the sciences. I'm also going to be commenting on what the lack of support of innovation and the broader assault on the sciences might be able to create, by way of adverse consequences for the U.S.

On the SBIR issue, there's bad news and there's good news. Obviously, if at the end of the budgetary discussions (assuming that we get a budget this year), if the budget decreases in terms of research funding, the SBIR program, which is tied to the research budgets of the agencies, will also decrease. That means the money available for grants will go down. But it is important to recognize that there is bipartisan support for not just small business in general—which has become a sort of holy hosanna in American politics—but also the SBIR program in particular, because of the fact that it has consistent support across different geographical jurisdictions. States and institutions, universities and governors, state legislatures and congress folks. So, it is clear that the program won't die. It is too embedded in every agency, and related to their research. And the buzzwords around and the concerns around innovation will continue to ensure that we have an SBIR program.

But, if it is curtailed, and the evidence suggests that the budgets may in fact be declining in the age we are currently in, what does that mean for entrepreneurs? What does that mean for SBIR grantees? What does it mean for folks involved in creating enterprises around the sciences? It is an opportunity, in fact, to think about putting yourself out there and creating a future for your company or your enterprise faster without the support of a grant to keep you going. Grants, it has to be quite clearly emphasized, are only a foot in the door. They will not do anything for you unless you’ve already thought or are thinking through a growth strategy.

We need you—companies, entrepreneurs involved in the sciences, involved in the SBIR program—out there talking about your innovations to regular folks, not just to corporate America or investors, but to regular folks. To understand the other issues that are driving the reason why you are doing the things you are doing in the sciences. The fact that you want to make a difference in healthcare, that you want to make a difference in understanding how pandemics start and how they grow and how they go out there and occupy a large chunk of the population. New ways to understand patient-centric personalized medicine. By providing a context for your innovations to be understood, and to be accepted, and to be even celebrated—in the country that celebrated Edison—you will be doing yourself a great service because you will have started to develop a path to growth. You will also have furthered people’s understanding of the importance of these investments in the science. You may even have the effect of diluting the kind of anecdotal nonsense that masquerades as fact out there in the body politic.

We need to make sure, of course, that the effort that we’re undertaking in being able to produce the kinds of stories that we have around innovation in the sciences, is not just about a specific innovation but related to things happening in a broader context that all Americans can participate in supporting.

This is obviously also a political issue—obviously, because it points to the need for educating our representatives, of educating our legislatures, of educating our public policy folks. It is also an economic issue, because the faster you get out there, the more you’re able to suggest that what you do actually will lead to a specific kind of future in the areas that are best described by the science you’re involved with, the better you will be able to connect with other people that will be important for your own economic future. Corporate buyers, investors, foundations, philanthropists, governments writ large, multilateral agencies, and individual consumers.

So, my point today is to remind you all that you need to build support among the political constituents in Congress and the policy-makers in your individual state. States are also dealing with economic and ideological drivers behind policy, so you’ve got out be out there, telling your story, making sure that there is context behind what you’re doing, and making sure that the consequences of the innovations that are being supported by the public in the U.S. are real and good and important for our futures as a people.

Larta Institute is a Los Angeles-based business accelerator that gives scientists and entrepreneurs the tools they need to feed, fuel, and heal the world.