Sensor Technology for the 21st Century

By Joel Creswell, Ph.D. 

Small businesses are engines of innovation. They have the flexibility to take risks and try new things. The federal government harnesses some of this ingenuity through the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs. EPA is one of eleven federal agencies that participate in SBIR. These grant and contract programs fund research and development on federal priorities by U.S.-owned businesses with 500 or fewer employees. Since their inception in 1982, they have awarded more than $26 billion.

Before joining EPA as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in 2015, I worked for a small business in Seattle, WA, developing technology for analyzing trace metals in the environment. While I was there, we undertook a sensor development project made possible by an SBIR grant from the Department of Energy. One of my biggest challenges in applying for SBIR grants was finding the right funding opportunities for my area of expertise. At the time, there was no central location to browse through sensor funding opportunities – I had to read through hundreds of pages of solicitations from every SBIR-granting agency to find the right research topics. Because each agency has its own calendar for releasing solicitations and accepting proposals, staying on top of the relevant funding opportunities requires a significant time commitment.

Man holds up small sensor

EPA is supporting small businesses and the next generation of environmental sensors.

On March 1, 2016, finding SBIR funding opportunities for sensor-related research and development became easier. posted Sensor Technology for the 21st Century to provide a central web location to help sensor developers locate SBIR and/or STTR funding opportunities across federal agencies. This site significantly reduces the effort required to browse sensor topics from a wide range of agencies. It also highlights the extent to which the U.S. Government is a significant driver of sensor innovation.

The new Sensor Technology for the 21st Century resource has several ambitious goals in addition to making it easier to find sensor funding opportunities. These include encouraging agencies to collaborate to fund different phases of the same research projects to increase their chances of commercial success; making each agency more aware of what sensor topics its peer agencies are funding; and avoiding duplicative investments across the government in sensor technology. This effort was developed in coordination with the federal working group on Exposure Science in the 21st Century and the National Nanotechnology Initiative under the White House National Science and Technology Council. So far ten federal agencies have contributed to this effort, including EPA.

If you are a sensor developer, whether for medicine, industrial automation, aerospace, water quality, or another field, take a look and explore the range of agencies that would consider funding your work. What you find may surprise you.

About the Author: Joel Creswell is an environmental chemist and a AAAS Fellow on the EPA Office of Research and Development’s Innovation Team. Prior to coming to EPA, he worked on developing environmental trace metals analyzers for a scientific instrument company.


Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.