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Article written for the Washington Business Journal Leadership Trust

By Kelly Carnes , President & Chief Executive Officer at TechVision21
The Honorable Kelly Carnes, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce, is President & CEO of TechVision21, a Washington-based consulting firm.

Congress is moving legislation to make major new investments in federal research and technology initiatives in a broad array of areas such as climate change, microelectronics, electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy efficiency, artificial intelligence and more. Should your tech company have a strategy to try to capture a share of this potentially dramatic increase in spending on research and development?

In short, yes.

For example, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), passed by the Senate this summer and awaiting action in the House, would authorize $50 billion for semiconductor manufacturing, a 30% funding boost for new National Science Foundation support for technology projects and millions of new spending on training programs and more for regional tech hubs, testbeds and research and development. The bill calls for boosts in low-carbon demonstration projects, climate research, sustainable agriculture and new funds for helping high-tech start-ups, while the Biden Administration budget, currently working its way through Congress, calls for a 17% increase in non-defense R&D spending in 2021 alone — the largest increase in non-defense R&D since the Space Race.

But getting some of that money will require more than dashing off a few forms and waiting for the checks to roll in. Indeed, smart companies will have a strategy and avoid pitfalls that undermine success in securing federal funding for research and high-tech projects.

You have a good idea to sell, but it’s a buyer’s market

The first thing to remember is the competition for government grants and other forms of funding is a buyer’s market. Each funding opportunity is tied to a program mission defined in law, focused on program goals to achieve that mission and may seek to advance an agency’s research or program plan. The program’s congressional authorization may specify how its money may be spent, limitations on recipients and provisions for supervision. All of those mean the government can and will be picky about submissions because it legally has to be and has goals to achieve. Any proposal concept should consider how it would help meet the federal program’s mission and achievement of its goals. However, there are ways to help shape an agency’s technical agenda, such as meeting with program managers, answering formal requests for information and attending agency workshops exploring technical needs.


Do the homework

Those parameters also mean it is important to do the homework on what an agency is looking for, its timeline and its resources. A proposal for a $10 million alternative energy project with a small artificial intelligence component should not be submitted to a program focused on AI with a $5 million award cap. The best submissions are tightly focused, relevant to the program objectives and clearly show the rationale for the project.

To get a good idea of whether your proposal would be a good fit, check out the agency’s existing programs and budgets, as well as legislative language Congress included in bills about its appropriations and program authorizations. See what kind of projects they have previously funded and how closely they resemble what you may propose. Finally, read the funding opportunity announcement carefully, including its technical areas of interest, attend bidder’s conferences, industry days or agency information sessions and webinars.

Follow the instructions

When developing a grant proposal, follow the instructions carefully and write in plain English. While it may seem like proposal requirements are arbitrary or burdensome, there’s usually some reason — either in law or bad past experience — they exist and are reflected in the requirements. Also, those requirements are designed to solicit the information that will help the agency judge the quality and potential impact of a proposal in a funding competition where choices among proposals must be made. Along the same lines, try to make any technical language understandable; don’t assume the reviewer is deeply steeped in the technical subject matter or jargon. If a more detailed explanation is required, an agency will ask for it as it considers the proposal.


Do the legwork

Based on these recent moves in legislation, we can assume the federal government wants to place a lot of eggs in the high-tech R&D basket. Solving questions like how to improve batteries to how to make cities more climate-resilient to how to make computer chips easier to manufacture are among the things on the table. The government is in the market for solutions, or even just parts of solutions, to a web of issues around climate change, clean energy, the economy and U.S. global competitiveness in high technology and the political realities related to those.

In conclusion

The best strategy will be to try to figure out where your project or company can fit into that larger conversation and from there, begin drilling down into the specifics of what agency and programs within that agency may be a good fit for what you are offering. The money is, and in the future increasingly will be, out there. The challenge will be doing the legwork to get it.

The Honorable Kelly Carnes, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce, is President & CEO of TechVision21, a Washington-based consulting firm