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July 11, 2024

SBIR Grants: How to Secure Authority to Operate (ATO)

Getting an SBIR is great! As cybersecurity becomes increasingly critical, SBIR grant recipients need to understand a crucial next step: obtaining Authority to Operate (ATO).
Written by:
Travis Good
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Securing a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant can be a game-changer for growth-focused companies; but, winning the grant is just the beginning. As cybersecurity becomes increasingly critical, SBIR grant recipients need to understand a crucial next step: obtaining Authority to Operate (ATO).

In this post, we'll explore why ATO is essential for SBIR grant winners, how it impacts your ability to work with government agencies, and what steps you need to take to secure it.

What is Authority to Operate (ATO)?

Before we dive into the specifics for SBIR grant winners, let's clarify what ATO actually means.

Definition and importance

Authority to Operate (ATO) is a formal declaration that authorizes a system to process information for a specific purpose. It's essentially the government's way of saying, "We trust this system to handle our data securely."

For companies working with federal agencies - including many SBIR grant recipients - obtaining ATO is not just a nice-to-have. It's a mandatory step before you can deploy your solution in a government environment.

Why it matters for SBIR grant winners

If you've won an SBIR grant, congratulations! But here's why you need to start thinking about ATO right away:

  1. Access to government systems: Without ATO, you can't integrate your innovative solution with government IT infrastructure.
  2. Credibility: ATO demonstrates that your product meets rigorous security standards, boosting your credibility with both government and private sector clients.
  3. Compliance: Many SBIR grants require ATO as part of the deliverables, especially for Phase II and beyond.

The ATO Process for SBIR Grant Winners

Securing ATO can seem daunting, but understanding the process is half the battle. Here's a high-level overview of what you can expect:

1. Determine the impact level

The first step is to determine the potential impact if your system were to be compromised. There are three levels:

  • Low impact
  • Moderate impact
  • High impact

Most SBIR grant winners will fall into the low or moderate category, but it's crucial to assess this accurately with your government point of contact.

2. Implement security controls

Based on your impact level, you'll need to implement a set of security controls outlined in NIST Special Publication 800-53. These controls cover various aspects of cybersecurity, from access control to incident response.

3. Conduct a security assessment

Once you've implemented the necessary controls, you'll need to undergo a security assessment. This typically involves:

  • Documentation review
  • Vulnerability scans
  • Penetration testing

4. Develop a Plan of Action and Milestones (POA&M)

Any issues identified during the assessment need to be addressed in a POA&M. This document outlines how and when you'll resolve each finding.

5. Submit for authorization

Finally, you'll submit your compliance or ATO package, including assessment results and POA&M, to the authorizing official for review.

Common ATO Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Securing ATO can be complex, especially for small businesses new to working with the government. And it’s extremely expensive with most software vendors and consultants. Here are some common hurdles and tips to overcome them:

1. Understanding requirements

Challenge: The sheer volume of cybersecurity requirements can be overwhelming.

Solution: Partner with experienced cybersecurity professionals who understand both SBIR and ATO processes.

2. Resource constraints

Challenge: Implementing all required controls, of which there could be over 1,600, can be resource-intensive.

Solution: Prioritize based on your specific use case and impact level. Focus on the most critical controls first.

3. Timeline management

Challenge: The ATO process can take months to years, which might not align with your SBIR project timeline.

Solution: Start the ATO process as early as possible. Communicate proactively with your government point of contact about timelines and potential delays.

How Workstreet Can Help

At Workstreet, we specialize in helping growth-focused companies navigate complex security and compliance landscapes. Workstreet the fastest and least expensive path to ATO.

  1. ATO readiness assessments: We'll evaluate your current security posture and identify gaps that need to be addressed.
  2. Implementation support: Our team can help you implement the necessary security controls efficiently and effectively.
  3. Documentation assistance: We'll help you prepare the required documentation for your ATO submission.
  4. Done for you ATO: We will run your entire ATO project, reducing the burden on you and your team.
  5. Hyper ATO: Workstreet can take you from zero to ATO in under 4 months.
  6. Interface to contract office: Workstreet interfaces with you contract office, fielding questions and ensuring a smooth process to ATO.
  7. Ongoing compliance management: Once you've secured ATO, we can help you maintain compliance and prepare for future reassessments.


Winning an SBIR grant is an exciting opportunity, but it comes with new responsibilities. By understanding and preparing for the ATO process early, you can ensure that your innovative solution makes it from the lab to real-world government applications.

ATO isn't just a bureaucratic hurdle - it's an opportunity to strengthen your security posture and demonstrate your commitment to protecting sensitive data. With the right approach and support, you can turn this challenge into a competitive advantage.

Ready to start your ATO journey? Contact Workstreet today to learn how we can support your SBIR success story.