In order to succeed, small businesses and entrepreneurs need to innovate in ways that set them above the rest of the market. Producing a product that merely tweaks existing designs will not be enough. To gain market share, new business ventures need to be providing goods or services that are something completely new. Both the Council on Competitiveness and the US DOE/Office of Science call simulation and computational science the “third leg” of innovation, with recommendations for the use of High Performance Computing (HPC) to make simulation more productive and cost effective. The Council on Competitiveness notes that there are three factors that tend to keep businesses from using HPC aggressively: Lack of talent/expertise, Lack of easy-to-use, scalable, production ready software, and cost/ROI. For start ups and small to mid-sized businesses ( SMBs), these hurdles can be especially high. Large HPC clusters are very expensive, programmers with HPC experience do not hire cheap and software licensing costs can add to the cost burden. While there are several programs that attempt to make these resources more available to businesses, we still have significant room for improvement. The US DOE’s INCITE program, for example will benefit 9 different corporations in 2009 with grants of processing time on some of the nations largest supercomputers, but less than 10% of the grants given in 2009 will benefit non-academics. Although businesses as diverse as Intel and Dreamworks have been previous grant recipients, for small businesses still on the low end of the HPC learning curve, the INCITE program does not fill the HPC gap.
In many cases, government granting agencies actually make it difficult for academic grant recipients to assist for-profit ventures. For example, the NSF Grant Policy Manual (gpm05_131) states:
544 Principles Relating to the Use of NSF-Supported Research Instrumentation and Facilities
The following principles on use of NSF-supported instrumentation and facilities were adopted by the National Science Board:
The National Science Foundation seeks the maximum productive use of the Nation’s scientific instrumentation and research expertise. Ensuring that the highest quality instrumentation, facilities, and services are available to scientific users, both academic and industrial, is a key requirement, as are harmonious relations and cooperation between industry and universities. Private research and testing laboratories, as well as university, government, and industrial laboratories, have a contribution to make.
The National Science Board recognizes that there may be circumstances where NSF grantees use NSF-supported research instrumentation to provide services in commerce for a fee, to an extent that such practice, (1) detracts from the performance of their obligation under the grant, and/or (2) may have a material and deleterious effect on the success of private companies engaged in the provision of equivalent services. It is contrary to the NSF’s intent for grantees to use NSF-supported research instrumentation or facilities to provide services for a fee in competition with private companies in a manner that is prohibited by OMB Circular A-110.
Grantees should implement the above principles and related grant conditions in a reasonable manner. Grantees are expected to provide fair and adequate consideration of any complaints about use of instrumentation and facilities.
The “gray” nature of what is allowed and what is not, along with the concerns of time and resources needed to provide documentation and explanation if complaints are made has caused most universities and research institutions to avoid selling low cost services to businesses. While regulations like this were put in place to prevent grant recipients from forming enterprises that unfairly compete with unfunded business ventures, in times of economic trouble where outside the box thinking is needed, we need regulations that are not only clearly stated to permit some assistance to businesses, but actually encourage the huge pools of talent and resources currently locked in our universities to grow the HPC and simulation capabilities in the business ecosystem.
It is important to state that I am not trying to argue for the diversion of research funds away from pure science, or the pursuit of “big questions” ( climate shifts, the origin of the universe, cancer research, etc…), but I do believe that all of us could benefit just as much or more by allowing universities that purchase technology with grants to sell the leftover cycles to businesses. It does not matter if the cycles are actual computer cycles to run simulations, or leftover “cycles” of people time to provide consulting or training; fully utilizing the resources our tax dollars pay for to assist in business innovations seems only prudent in today’s competitive market. I believe that this is important enough that I would be fully in agreement of preference for grants to recipients who can show a plan and an infrastructure to provide such services. Are you an entrepreneur or SMB owner? What could you do with access to low cost, high quality HPC resources, consulting services and/or training?