National Cancer Institute brings diversity of thought, people to help small business innovators


Christie Canaria is no stranger to herding industry and government cats, so to speak.

Canaria, a finalist for the Women in Technology leadership award, recognized there are certain qualities she has learned over the last two decades to get executives in industry and in government to reach certain goals.

Canaria, the Small Business Innovation Research program director at the National Cancer Institute, said she tries to ensure her office embodies many of those qualities that makes a federal program successful.

Christie Canaria is the Small Business Innovation Research program director at the National Cancer Institute and a finalist for the Women in Technology leadership award.

“When I think of leaders and impactful leaders, I think of empathy. People who recognize the value of diverse perspectives to get them to better solutions,” Canaria said on Ask the CIO. “I see that in the work I do today. I’m very fortunate to have a supervisor who has convened a group of program directors that is diverse. If you look at the program director make-up in our office, half are women. I’m very proud to be able to say that. From our office, we have representation from different technical backgrounds and expertise, and also from various culture experiences. That enables us to appreciate different perspectives and I apply that in my work as a program director.”

She said those different perspectives become even more important when reviewing SBIR submissions.

The NCI just issued its 2021 research topic solicitation focused on 17 topics ranging from next generation 3D culture systems to quantitative imaging software tools to software to social determinants. Submissions are due Oct. 26. NCI received more than $151 million in SBIR funding in fiscal 2020, according to its budget justification.

Canaria, who earned a PhD in chemistry, said the diversity of thought and backgrounds help small firms with their proposals and with the decisions on funding.

“We look at who’s on the team? What kind of expertise do they have? What problems are they trying to address? Are they things we think are important, and as program directors we do bring a lens to that and try to make sure our portfolio is diverse in the types of cancer innovations we are trying to support, in the types of companies that are coming in, where they are coming from and what they are trying to do?” she said. “We are trying to work closely with review panels and help them understand what we are trying to do through our SBIR program. If you look at the SBIR policy directive, the number three mission statement on there is to increase participation from women and traditionally underrepresented individuals in entrepreneurship. That is something we are trying to do good work on.”

NCI is holding a virtual MedTech Showcase on Sept. 9 and 10 for NCI-funded companies to obtain investments or make new partnerships. The virtual showcase will include one-on-one virtual meetings, panel discussions with medical technology investors and partners and a keynote speech by NCI Director Ned Sharpless.

Part of how NCI gets companies to the point of winning SBIR awards and presenting at the showcase is through its applicant assistance program.

Canaria said the program is designed for companies who want to win SBIR funding because they are new or never successfully received a grant.

“Even though I come from the point of view of a chemist, we have to stay on top of the more recent, emerging technologies like IT, artificial intelligence and machine learning because these are all areas of development that are rising and getting implemented into the work that we fund,” she said. “I’ve had to get more savvy with understanding how these technologies are going to be impactful on the research we fund and for the work we do as a federal government.”

From an internal standpoint, Canaria said she works with researchers and program directors to come up with an understanding of what are the “white spaces” in the research areas today.

“We try to understand where the opportunities are for development and growth, and what the small business community is doing. We work to develop funding opportunities for small businesses to engage,” she said. “We are funding early stage projects. These are supposed to be high risk projects. From my perspective, if we can give companies the opportunity to try something new because these are the small businesses that are nimble and are able to pivot in terms of the direction they are working in. If we can give them the capital they need, that’s to our benefit.”

To that end, Canaria said one of the other programs she manages is called NIH at I-Corps, which is an eight-week course to help emerging small firms develop business cases and receiving training to prepare to submit ideas to the SBIR program.

“It’s so much a matter of framing where you are coming from and what you are trying to do. As a program director, I often remind people that I’m there as an advocate for them, and that’s usually enough to help them to understand we are in alignment for their success,” she said. “If you look at the funding rates for NIH, they are not that high. So helping people understand where they are in terms of leveraging opportunities is something I can do for them, and being able to communicate with them to let them understand that I’m here to help them is one of the messages we try to get across.”