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An Assessment of the SBIR Program at the National Science Foundation
and 32 percent of projects in the Phase II survey had achieved some degree of sales revenue.
Of course, the percentage of projects resulting in sales revenue may rise in the future, as indicated by the 19 percent of respondents reporting commercialization under way and the 28 percent of projects still active in the developmental stage. Yet, these could be offset in the future by some of those projects now active becoming inactive, and some of the prospective projects not achieving sales. If half those expecting commercialization achieve it and remain active, and if a quarter of those still in development achieve commercialization and remain active, this would raise the upper bound of projects achieving sales revenue and remaining active to as high as 38.5 percent. This projected upper-bounds figure approaches the finding of the larger Coryell Study, which found that 40 percent of the projects surveyed had achieved a first sale.
Commercialization as Signaled by Sales Revenue. The NRC Phase II Survey showed that relatively few of the projects had achieved significant sales revenue. When the total reported sales revenue was averaged across all survey projects, sales revenue averaged about $0.4 million per project and licensee sales averaged about $1.4 million per project. Furthermore, just eight of the projects—each of which had $2.3 million or more in sales—accounted for over half the total sales dollars reported by survey projects. The project with the highest reported annual sales amount had $4.8 million in sales. Similarly, a single licensee accounted for over half the total licensee sales dollars.
The set of 10 case study companies reported annual company revenue ranging from $2 million to nearly $24 million. The average annual company revenue per company was $7.7 million. This included revenue from all company projects—not just a single NSF project.
The Tibbetts Study, which included some of the most successful NSF SBIR projects and was taken over a longer period of time than did the other studies, found much larger sales revenue. It was reported cumulatively by the study rather than annually; hence, the data from the various sources are not comparable as reported. Cumulative direct sales attributable to NSF SBIR projects ranged from $1 million to $500 million. Cumulative direct and indirect sales ranged from $2 million to $2.6 billion.
To the extent that the past is a predictor of the future, more than half the projects funded by SBIR likely will not achieve commercialization. Somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent will probably achieve some level of commercialization. For most of these projects, sales revenue will likely remain relatively small, with approximately 10 percent having more robust sales in the range of $2 million to $10 million annually—again, if the past is a predictor of the future. A smaller percentage of projects will likely achieve large growth and huge sales revenues, i.e., be commercial “home runs.” These patterns are similar to those found in other private and public investments in high-risk advanced