We at the Small Business Technology Council were sad to hear that Roland Tibbetts passed away last week, at the age of 90.  Roland Tibbetts is considered to be the “father” of the SBIR program, as it was he who designed and developed the initial pilot program for NSF back in the 1970s that led to Congress passing SBIR legislation in 1982.

After spending his first 20 years of his professional life in the private sector, Roland joined the NSF as the Administrative Officer of the Research Applied to National Needs Program, which was a new program designed to fund commercializable research that would focus on areas of need for the US and increase the nation’s return on investment.  From his experience in the private sector, he knew how difficult it was for small firms to get government funding, and led the design of the first SBIR program in 1976 to make sure that small businesses were given an opportunity to participate.

His focus on commercialized research and application to national needs set him at odds with many at NSF and in the university community, who traditionally favor basic or academic research.  This inevitably led to controversy and confrontation that he faced with courage.  However, through it all, Roland never lost the gentle and dignified approach that also trademarked him.

In 1978, current SBTC Executive Director Jere Glover was then a Counsel for the House Small Business Subcommittee tasked with organizing and holding hearings on small business innovation.  He reached out to Roland for help with research, and Roland responded with over 20 different studies, comprising over 600 pages highlighting the contributions small business made to high tech innovation.   The publication and dissemination of this research played a key role in educating Congress that small business could innovate just as well, if not better, than large businesses, and led directly to the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act.

In the early 1980s, when Congress was looking for ways to increase small business participation in government-funded R&D, they looked again at NSF’s SBIR program.  In only a few short years, the NSF’s small SBIR pilot program had managed to fund some impressive small business success stories, including the software company Symantec.  They decided to expand the program to the biggest 11 agencies, and Roland continued as NSF’s SBIR Program Manager until he retired in 1996.  The SBA’s Tibbetts award, given to small businesses and individuals who exemplify the best in SBIR achievement, was named in his honor.  Even after retiring he remained an active supporter of the program, collaborating with the SBTC on white papers and testimony during our effort to reauthorize the program.

We remember not only his courage, but his calm and gentle spirit with which he waged his war for small innovative firms.  An innovator himself, Roland well knew that innovation means fighting for one’s dreams, and Roland did fight to establish the SBIR Program.  But he always did so with professionalism and dignity.  He was a true friend to small business, and he will be missed.

Please contact Alec Orban at alec@sbtc.org with any questions or comments.