Apr 02, 2019

Three Ideas to Supercharge Your Innovation Practice From an Unlikely Source: A Government-Funded New Ventures Program

Rachel West

Rachel West

Three Ideas to Supercharge Your Innovation Practice From an Unlikely Source: A Government-Funded New Ventures Program

Coined “America’s Largest Seed Fund,” the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program uses a rigorous review process to identify and fund transformational companies. One-of-a-kind, the initiative offers valuable lessons to both public and private sector companies that are serious about structured innovation.

One company that consistently outperforms in the SBIR program is Transcendent Endeavors, an NYC-based digital health venture studio that builds products to improve the lives of underserved communities. It has turned the non-dilutive grants into products that help doctors and nurses communicate with patients who don’t speak English, enable clinics to reduce appointment no-show rates, and promote children’s bilingual literacy. The company adopts elements of the SBIR scientific peer review process to rank and refine ideas before submission. We sat down with its founder and CEO, Bill Tan, to understand how incorporating best practices from a government program allows his team to consistently win funding out of thousands of SBIR proposals each year and achieve commercial success in the marketplace. Here are three ways to think critically about structured innovation and turn it into a competitive advantage:

1. Use an Objective Framework

Transcendent Endeavors adopts a modified version of the SBIR scoring rubric, developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to vet ideas generated by its employees. By scoring ideas on a nine-point scale across five main criteria, as shown below, they are able to prioritize which ideas to greenlight into fully-fledged projects. Through this objective approach for evaluating internal ideas, an organization can encourage debate and collaboration, instead of arbitrarily killing projects and stifling employee’s enthusiasm.

Transcendent Endeavor’s Sample Project Scorecard (adopted from NIH)

2. Create a Highly Participatory Peer Review Process

Once the scoring criteria is solidified, Bill’s team starts by ranking six to seven solutions informed by customer feedback. An employee takes on the role of internal champion to present a semi-polished version of a project to a review panel, and the highest scoring entry gets the go-ahead to be developed into a full proposal for the SBIR program. There are a couple ways to engage your entire team throughout the process:

  • Establish transparency —giving your employees and colleagues full visibility to the entire decision-making process, from the scoring criteria to the debates that precede the final score—helps everyone appreciate that the process is fair, inclusive, and designed to allow the best ideas to surface to the top.

  • Create an environment where every employee has a voice – After receiving a rating with detailed feedback from experts, the project champion has an opportunity to respond, sparking discussions with the whole team. Ensuring that everyone understands the nuances of the envisioned product and deliberates on its strengths and weaknesses not only generates better outcomes, but also empowers your employees to take ownership of your solutions.

3. Invite External Experts to Provide Critical Feedback

This digital health company is smart enough not to only trust their gut. Before pushing their projects through the submission pipeline, they invite at least three external reviewers to score each proposal and offer feedback according to the five criteria. There are a couple of important considerations when assembling an expert panel:

  • Invite people who you admire and wish to work with– reviewing your proposals is a great way for them to get to know you and your work.

  • Always include at least one person who will be very forthcoming with their critiques—that person will set the tone for the meeting and make others feel comfortable speaking their minds without being overly courteous.

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