Q&A with Freedom Photonics: Growing Government Relationships and Technology Capabilities with the NASA SBIR/STTR Program
The 2022 SBIR and STTR Phase I solicitations are avenues for small businesses and research institutions to work with NASA: whether you have a concept ready to prove or an innovation that could be redesigned to meet NASA’s needs, the NASA SBIR/STTR program wants to support your technology growth. Dr. Milan Mashanovitch, CEO and co-founder of Freedom Photonics LLC in Santa Barbara, California, has worked with the program since 2014, and his company has achieved commercial success with technology developed through the program. He shared with us how Freedom Photonics began its partnership with NASA by developing and improving technologies through SBIR awards.
The Freedom Photonics team at the company headquarters. Photo credit: Freedom Photonics LLC
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity
Did you start with a different SBIR agency?
Dr. Mashanovitch: Yes, before we worked with NASA we worked with the Department of Defense (DOD), so the technology we proposed to NASA already had a pretty significant level of maturity. To trivialize a little bit, say we have a set of sunglasses in a certain design, and they work. Someone at NASA said they liked our “sunglasses,” but asked if we can also make glasses for corrective vision. DOD SBIRs brought us to the initial technology, which could be redesigned to meet NASA’s needs.
How did you start with the NASA SBIR/STTR program?
Dr. Mashanovitch: Our entry to the program was two-part. Someone from NASA’s Armstrong Research Flight Center reached out about a product we had developed and had started selling commercially. They wanted to use it in a new way and add features. At the same time, we had a booth at a trade show called Photonics West. At the event, the head of Integrated Photonics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center looked at our technology portfolio and had immediate interest and ideas about some applications at NASA based on our underlying technology.
Some companies say “SBIR is seed funding, we don’t need that.” But it sounds like that wasn’t your approach.
Dr. Mashanovitch: It wasn’t all seed funding in a classic sense. Our first NASA SBIR contracts were to modify the technology we already had. One of our laser designs worked for a laser of a certain color, but to work for NASA’s application, we needed to change the color coming out of the laser. Yes, we’d never made this color laser before and there was technical risk, but we had made another laser in a different color, so the risk was lower.
But we have used some of our NASA SBIRs for seed funding as well. We’d have this crazy idea and say, “we can do this.” In a couple of cases, it turned out to be harder than we thought. But with many other cases, it actually led to us releasing additional products based on that NASA seed funding.
I think it was easier for us to obtain seed funding because of our track record with DOD before working with NASA, as well as our track record within NASA from those initial SBIRs, which were used to enhance existing technology. You gain more credibility.
When you have a great idea, it is hard to get started. We lived in that catch 22 world when we started the company because we had all these ideas, but to convince somebody to give the actual seed funding was pretty hard. One piece of advice is to be persistent, don’t get discouraged or give up easily, and try to find somebody who really cares about your idea and what you’re trying to accomplish.
Essentially, SBIR/STTR funding helped us scale our capabilities toward technology development with demand in the commercial as well as government markets. That demand resulted in commercial sales reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars and counting.
– Dr. Milan Mashanovitch, CEO and Co-Founder of Freedom Photonics LLC
How did you grow your network at NASA?
Dr. Mashanovitch: Through a non-NASA event, we were able to introduce ourselves to the contact at Goddard, so it’s very important that NASA has people attend technical conferences. That led to a number of new applications for our SBIR technology at NASA. In other words, others at NASA saw our success with NASA SBIRs, so people started coming out with their needs. That’s how a business grows.
In addition, NASA personnel helped us connect the dots and pointed us in the right direction for commercial applications and who we should reach out to. They helped us align our technology to address other commercial needs.
The SBIR and STTR Phase I solicitations are open now through March 9, 2022. Through the SBIR/STTR program, you could get up to $1.15 million in funding in your first three years. Phase I is the opportunity to establish the scientific, technical, commercial merit and feasibility of the proposed innovation, and the quality of the small business’ performance. SBIR Phase I contracts last for 6 months, and STTR Phase I contracts last for 13 months, with a maximum funding of $150,000 for each. Phase I work and results should provide a sound basis for the continued development in Phase II and follow-on efforts.