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NIH to Award SBIR/STTR Grant Money for Screening Tech; Updates Recent RFA

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The US National Institutes of Health is soliciting proposals for innovative technologies for drug screening instrumentation with an eye towards making sure small businesses — including those developing cellular imaging and analysis technologies — are also in the fold.

The program announcement, released a little over a week ago, will utilize the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) funding mechanisms. Under these mechanisms, eligible candidates may request up to $200,000 in total costs per year for up to two years in Phase I, and up to $400,000 in total costs per year for up to two years in Phase II. Participating institutes include the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health.

According to the PA, which can be seen at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-05-014.html, the NIH invites “research applications to develop innovative instrumentation to maximize the efficiency and augment the capabilities of molecular library high-throughput screening systems.

“Applications in response to this PA should propose development of instrumentation suitable for integration into large high-throughput screening operations and compatible with scalable approaches to chemical genomics research,” the PA states.

The funding initiative should benefit shops with up-and-coming technologies that are struggling to find a foothold amidst the upsurge of publicly traded companies and larger biotech firms that have adopted high-throughput, high-content, or other screening platforms in the past few years. Examples of small businesses that have pending commercial technologies include Blueshift Biotechnologies (see Inside Bioassays, 10/19/2004), Wafergen (IBA, 7/13/2004), Amnis (IBA, 11/23/2004), and Cyntellect (IBA, 10/26/2004).

According to Bradley Ozenberger of the division of extramural research at NHGRI, high-throughput screening instrumentation is a new avenue for the SBIR grant program. And although the PA is for any high-throughput screening instrumentation, there is a large focus on cellular analysis and imaging technologies.

“The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering receives a lot of applications for technology in this area, so it was apparent that some mechanism was needed for small businesses that are interested in receiving funding for high-throughput screening instrumentation,” Ozenberger told Inside Bioassays last week.

The research applications sought by the NIH are similar to those solicited in July for the development of screening instrumentation as part of the Molecular Libraries and Imaging portion of the NIH’s overarching “roadmap” initiative for biomedical research (see Inside Bioassays, 7/27/2004).

The types of technology solicited by that particular RFA included innovative microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip technologies; improved high-content cell-based assay formats; innovative methods for data acquisition and management; and novel screening system integration methods.

That funding initiative is operating under the R01 grant mechanism, under which researchers receive a much larger amount of funding, typically more than $500,000. The NIH has budgeted $4 million a year for that initiative, with the anticipation of funding four to six grants for up to four years. This budget, however, has no bearing on the recent PA for SBIR and STTR grants.

“It is regarded as roadmap-related activity in that it stems from the roadmap initiative, but it is not coming from the funds for that initiative,” Ozenberger said about the SBIR grants. “Instead, the money comes from a designated SBIR grant funding pool.” he said, however, that no funds have been specifically set aside for these awards as yet, and the number of awards and total amount of funding available have also not yet been determined.

Realistically, small businesses can apply for funding under either the R01 or SBIR mechanisms; however, the latter was specifically designed to accommodate smaller, privately owned operations with relatively limited resources.

“The RFA was primarily for large awards … but we wanted to let the small business community know that we’re interested in them, too,” Ozenberger said. “The SBIR mechanism is much smaller than the one used in the roadmap funding. Many of these small businesses have some great ideas for components for high-throughput screening, so we really wanted to invite [them] to apply for funding.”

Ozenberger added that small businesses are not relegated to applying for SBIR and STTR funding, however. “We welcome private companies to apply,” he said. “An R01 mechanism, which is the type associated with the roadmap funding, implies that there will be an interdisciplinary review, and that some of the requirements are a little more stringent, so it’s just a bit more difficult for them.”

This is the first roadmap-related SBIR program announcement that the NIH has released, and it will likely not be the last. Ozenberger said that there would soon be PAs for other areas pertaining to drug discovery, such as developing natural products and chemical libraries. The NIH has not yet set a timeline for these announcements.

The SBIR and STTR grants have three dates by which applications should be received for immediate consideration: April 1, Aug. 1, and Dec. 1. The expiration date for the grants is Aug. 2, 2007.

Extended Deadline

Ozenberger also informed Inside Bioassays that the deadline dates originally associated with the RFA announced in July have been changed.

Originally, letters of intent for that funding were due by Sept. 22 of this year, with the applications due on Oct. 22.

“We’ve received some pretty complex proposals,” Ozenberger said. “So we wanted to make sure we gave people enough time to complete their proposals. We thought that the existing deadline might have been too early.”

The new deadline for the letters of intent, Ozenberger said, is Jan. 4, 2005, and the new deadline for applications is Jan. 24. The three remaining RFA’s related to the Molecular Libraries and Imaging initiative remain unchanged.

— BB

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