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NEI Small Business Grant Program Q&A

How do small business grants (SBIR and STTR) advance the mission of the NEI?

The NEI conducts and supports research to understand visual function and eye diseases. Through SBIR and STTR grants, small businesses are able to perform research and development projects that convert basic knowledge into commercial products to help solve problems of eye disease or visual dysfunction.

What is the general structure of the program?

The program is essentially structured in three phases:

Phase I — an initial feasibility project to test proof of concept for a new idea, its commercial potential, and to determine the performance quality of the small business .

Phase II — the full research & development (R&D) project to transform the idea into and advanced stage, or a workable prototype.

Phase III — the commercialization phase (conducted with non-SBIR/STTR funds), in which the small business moves the prototype into the marketplace, or attracts private investors to provide capital for conducting clinical trials.

What's the difference between the SBIR and STTR programs?

The SBIR and STTR programs differ in two major ways. First, in the SBIR program, the small business can be the sole institution involved in the R&D project, although some of the R&D work can be sub-contracted to other institutions. In contrast, the STTR program requires that the small business have a formal partnership with a university or other non-profit research institution. Second, under the SBIR program, the Principal Investigator must have his/her primary employment with the small business at the time of award and for the duration of the project period. Under the STTR program, the Principal Investigator may have his/her primary employment with either the small business or the “partnering” research institution. Also, the STTR program allows some additional budget flexibility, relative to SBIR.

Roughly how much does NEI invest each year in small business grants, and how many are currently funded?

Approximately $24 million annually. Since both Phase I grants (with smaller budgets) and Phase II grants (with larger budgets) are funded from the same “pot of money”, the actual number of funded grants varies significantly. The numbers range from 60 -80 grants.

What kinds of businesses are eligible to apply for small business grants?

To be eligible for the SBIR/STTR program, the company must be an organized for-profit U.S. business, which is at least 51% U.S.-owned by individuals and independently operated, and with 500 or fewer employees.

Beyond that, all different kinds of companies apply: new start-up companies, with only a handful of employees, as well as long-established companies. Companies can come from a variety of science fields, such as biotechnology, biology, chemistry/biochemistry, physics, engineering, computer/software, etc.

How are small business grant proposals reviewed?

The proposals are reviewed via External Peer Review, which is carried out by the NIH Center for Scientific Review.

What are the SBIR/STTR technical assistance programs, and how can they help grantees?

For Phase I awardees, the Niche Assessment Program provides analyses that assess potential applications for a company's technology. The results of such an analysis may include: needs and concerns of end-users; competing technologies and competing products; market size and potential market share; barriers to market entry; status of market and industry trends; the price customers are likely to pay; and more.

For Phase II awardees, the Commercialization Assistance Program provides expert business mentoring to assist with evaluating their commercialization options based on their specific technologies; developing a solid market-entry plan; assessing the company's current commercialization status; establishing a practical plan with time-limited milestones and budgets to accomplish commercialization goals; developing a clear understanding of potential customers, partners, investors and competitors; and more.

Where can potential applicants go for more information about the grant submission process?


Applicants can visit the NIH Small Business web page. For specific information on electronic submission of grant proposals, use the following web link:

Who do I contact for more information about applying for a small business grant at the NEI?

Paek Lee, Ph.D.
Program Director for the NEI Small Business Grant Program
Division of Extramural Research
National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health
6700 Rockledge Drive, Suite 3400
Bethesda, MD 20817

Last updated: July 23, 2020