Working with Defense Primes as a US-based Small Business

As part of the 2020 TechConnect Virtual Summit last month, we attended a session called “Working with Defense Primes.” We had the opportunity to hear from Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program leads at four of the five US-based defense prime contractors: Alf Carroll of Raytheon Technologies, Kevin McGrath of Northrop Grumman, Craig Owens of Lockheed Martin, and Paul Staszak of Boeing

If you aren’t familiar with the SBIR/STTR programs, they are competitive awards-based Research and Development (R&D) programs available to US-based small businesses. Through the programs, small businesses have the opportunity to develop and commercialize their technologies. 

The SBIR and STTR programs are coordinated by the Small Business Administration (SBA) and funded by one of eleven federal agencies. Some of these agencies include the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense (DoD). STTR differs from SBIR in that it involves collaborations between small businesses and US-based nonprofit research institutions. The DoD plays a critical role in the programs. In fact, the agency makes up over 40% of the SBIR/STTR budget. 

The benefits of startup-defense prime collaboration

So why work with a defense prime contractor? Small businesses receive all sorts of benefits from partnering with a prime. Some of these benefits include access to subject matter expertise and resources, roadmaps towards commercialization, resources for IP concerns, funding strategy guidance, and support during proposals. 

The collaboration benefits the primes too. Through the partnership, primes build long-term, strategic relationships with small businesses. Additionally, the partnership helps primes to deliver innovative solutions and advanced technologies to their customers. The primes often align innovative small businesses and their technologies to their innovation priorities. This alignment results in the development of more advanced technology that benefits both parties. 

How small businesses can initiate a collaboration with primes

So how does a small business get started on collaborating with the primes? In order to apply for SBIR/STTR funding through the DoD, a small business must meet the qualifications explained here. Most of the primes send out a topic interest list that can give hopefuls an indication of whether their emerging technology is of interest. If your technology is not listed, a small business can usually reach out to each prime to be added. If your technology aligns with one of the primes’ interests, you can fill out an SBIR/STTR form for that prime and email it to their SBIR/STTR department. 

Tips for Successful Collaboration

What is the best way to engage with the defense prime contractors? In the session, the speakers had some important advice for small businesses beginning the process:

  1. Be flexible and able to pivot. The primes often will have ideas about how to adjust your technology to fit specific needs.
  2. Be persistent about contact. Furthermore, understand where your contact is within these big companies. It is important to find the right person who can advocate for you.
  3. Don’t be vague. Come prepared and be concise about where and how your technology will fit in at the prime with whom you are speaking.

We hope we helped to de-mystify the process of working with the US-based defense prime contractors. We wish you luck in advancing your technology through this process!

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