Letters of Support: an OPTT “how to”

Cherri J Schmidt

The Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer (OPTT) provides a wide array of services for the laboratory. We are the “one-stop shop” for invention disclosures, patents, copyrights and licensing. We also handle most of the nonprocurement agreements with our university and industry partners, such as Non-Proprietary User Agreements, Strategic Partnership Projects Agreements, and Cooperative Research and Development Agreements.

One of our lesser-known services is coordinating the Letters of Support that our university and industry partners need to obtain from Fermilab for proposals they submit to the Department of Energy or other funding agencies. Although we receive an occasional request from our university partners, both here and abroad, most of the requests we receive are from small businesses who are applying for funding from DOE’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.

Each year, DOE issues four funding opportunity announcements for the SBIR/STTR program. As we usually have our heaviest demand for Letters of Support in the first quarter of each fiscal year, I thought it might be timely to offer this “how to” for obtaining a Letter of Support.

What is a Letter of Support?

A Letter of Support is written by one institution (for example, Fermilab) in support of a research proposal by another institution (one of our university or small business partners). A Letter of Support provides evidence to the reviewers of the research proposal that the research may have value to the institution providing the letter. It may simply state a general interest in the outcome of the research, indicating that the institution may become a customer for a successful new development. It may also contain commitments that it is willing to make, such as loaning an accelerating cavity to a small business partner, testing a new technology, hosting visiting researchers from an international organization, or even collaborating on the research itself as a subrecipient or subcontractor.

DOE publishes new due dates for FY2018 SBIR Phase I Release 1 funding opportunity.

Is it the same as a Letter of Commitment?

Although they are similar, a Letter of Commitment is usually considered to be more binding than a Letter of Support. This is especially true in the private sector. In the federal grant system, however, the terms are often used interchangeably. Since Fermilab cannot technically make a resource commitment to another institution without written DOE authorization, we have adopted the use of the term “Letter of Support” for all letters of this type so that we can be responsive to short turn-around requests. We have also developed a standard format for the Letter of Support that clearly states that Fermilab support is contingent on the availability of funding and securing all approvals from DOE.

Who can sign a Letter of Support at Fermilab?

A Letter of Support for a domestic (U.S.) company or university requires a minimum of two signatures. The division head signs the Letter of Support to confirm that they are willing to provide the necessary resources to support the research proposal, should it be successful. The Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer manager must also sign it as evidence that the Directorate has been notified and to ensure that the letter conforms to approved standards. A second division head signature may be appropriate when commitments involve two divisions.

A Letter of Support for an international partner is typically signed by the laboratory director. In this case, only one signature is required. However, OPTT still coordinates the Letter of Support to ensure it conforms to the approved standards.

How do I get a Letter of Support?

Securing a Letter of Support is simply a matter of sending an email to optt@fnal.gov with the following information:

  1. Your name and contact information
  2. The name of the institution requesting the letter (company or university name)
  3. The name of the person to whom the letter should be addressed (the principal investigator)
  4. The Funding Opportunity Announcement (by name or by number)
  5. The date the Letter of Support is needed

A member of the OPTT team will contact you to gather additional information about the nature of the requested support. If you have a draft Letter of Support, you can attach it to your email. It is also helpful if you attach a description of the research proposal itself.

How do I know the Letter of Support will be issued on time?

If your request has been forwarded to OPTT, the request will be assigned a tracking number and closely monitored until it has been sent to the partner institution. In the four years since the OPTT tracking system has been in use, Fermilab has never missed a due date – even when the request was received on very short notice.

It is recommended, however, that the request be sent to OPTT at least one week in advance of the proposal submission date. This provides enough time for OPTT to coordinate the reviews, track down the division heads for signatures (many of whom travel on a regular basis) and help resolve any resource issues between Fermilab and the partner.

Cherri J Schmidt is the head of the Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer.