Small Business Innovation Research: Three Agencies Made Awards to Businesses Majority-Owned by Investment Companies and Funds

GAO-21-223R Published: Jan 29, 2021. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The Small Business Innovation Research Program seeks to stimulate technological breakthroughs by channeling federal research and development funds to small businesses. Since 2013, small businesses owned by venture capital companies, hedge funds, or private equity firms may participate in some cases.

Our review of fiscal years 2019 and 2020 found:

3 agencies made awards to these businesses

Awards totaled $31.6 million

The National Institutes of Health made the most awards

The reasons agencies cited for making the awards included a belief that they would produce innovation and prompt research in areas that have not drawn private investment.

Value of Small Business Innovation Research Awards, FY 2015-2020

Graph showing annual award amounts ranging from around $2 million to around $18 million

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What GAO Found

Under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, participating agencies can make awards to small businesses majority-owned by multiple venture capital operating companies, hedge funds, or private equity firms (investment companies and funds). In fiscal years 2019 and 2020, four of the 11 agencies participating in the program received proposals from small businesses majority-owned by investment companies and funds (i.e., qualified small businesses), and three of the four made awards to such small businesses. Specifically, the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of the Navy within the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Education made a combined 45 awards worth $31.6 million to qualified small businesses during this period. As in previous years, NIH made the most awards and awarded the most funds to qualified small businesses in fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy opened its SBIR awards to qualified small businesses, but did not issue any awards to them during fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

Since 2011, when qualified small businesses became eligible for SBIR awards, participating SBIR agencies have considered whether to allow qualified small businesses to participate in the program. Consistent with what GAO found in December 2018, in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, agencies cited several reasons for not allowing qualified small businesses to participate in their SBIR program. For example, officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Homeland Security said that they did not pursue the option because qualified small businesses have not expressed much interest in their SBIR programs. In contrast, two component agencies within DOD—the Departments of the Navy and the Air Force—decided to allow qualified small businesses to receive awards and the Department of the Army within DOD was considering doing so. For example, Air Force program officials told us they found that providing SBIR funding to qualified small businesses would expand the Air Force's investment in cutting-edge technologies with both commercial and military uses. NIH—the agency that has made the majority of awards to qualified small businesses—has continued to make awards to qualified small businesses in its SBIR program, as these businesses are subject to the same standard reporting requirements as all other SBIR award recipients. NIH officials also noted that SBIR recipients provide information on specific project impacts, such as technology transfer and commercialization activities, and NIH cited development of a long-release capsule for medication as an example of a successful outcome from an award to a qualified small business.

Why GAO Did This Study

The SBIR program enables federal agencies to support research and development (R&D) projects carried out by small businesses. Participating agencies are required to spend a certain percentage of their extramural R&D obligations on their SBIR program each year. Eleven federal agencies participate in the SBIR program. To qualify for SBIR awards, a small business must meet certain ownership and other eligibility criteria. The Small Business Act, as amended, authorizes agencies to allow participation in their SBIR programs by qualified small businesses. Upon providing a written determination to the Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA)—the agency that oversees the SBIR program—and specified congressional committees, agencies may make SBIR awards to qualified small businesses.

The Small Business Act, as amended, includes a provision for GAO to conduct a study of the impact of requirements relating to the involvement of investment companies and funds in the SBIR program and submit a report to Congress regarding the study every 3 years. GAO's first review covered fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and in December 2018, GAO issued its second report on this issue, for fiscal years 2015 through 2018. This third report addresses (1) SBIR participating agencies' awards to small businesses that are majority-owned by multiple investment companies and funds in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 and (2) reasons participating agencies cited for allowing or not allowing the participation of qualified small businesses in the SBIR program. GAO reviewed agencies' data on the participation of qualified small businesses and conducted interviews with or obtained written answers from program managers from the 11 participating agencies and SBA.

For more information, contact Candice N. Wright at (202) 512-6888 or

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