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Understanding the R&D Tax Credit for SMEs

Introduction to R&D Credits

For small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), staying competitive often means innovating on more than just your product. This includes innovating on the way you find tax breaks and credits. Whether you're a software company developing cutting-edge applications or a manufacturing business refining production processes, investing in research and development (R&D) is crucial. However, these investments can be costly. Fortunately, the federal government offers the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit to help offset some of these expenses. This comprehensive guide will walk you through the ins and outs of the R&D tax credit, why it exists, how it works, and how your business can benefit.

Background: Why the R&D Tax Credit Exists

The R&D Tax Credit was first introduced in the United States in 1981 as a temporary provision. Its primary goal was to encourage businesses to invest in innovation and technological advancements, thereby boosting the nation's competitiveness. Recognizing the long-term benefits of sustained R&D investments, the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 made the credit permanent. Today, it remains a vital tool for fostering economic growth and technological progress.

How the R&D Tax Credit Works

Eligibility Criteria

To qualify for the R&D tax credit, your business must engage in activities that meet the IRS's definition of qualified research. Generally, these activities should aim to develop or improve a product, process, formula, or software and involve a process of experimentation. Key eligibility criteria include:

  • The activity must aim to eliminate technical uncertainty.
  • It must involve a process of experimentation.
  • The research should be technological in nature.
  • The purpose should be to develop a new or improved business component.

Qualified Expenses

The R&D tax credit is calculated based on qualified research expenses (QREs). These include:

  • Wages: Salaries and wages paid to employees directly involved in R&D activities.
  • Supplies: Costs of materials and supplies used in R&D.
  • Contract Research: Payments to third-party contractors for conducting qualified research on behalf of your business.
  • Computer Leasing: Costs associated with leasing computers used in R&D.

How to Apply for the R&D Tax Credit

Application Process

Applying for the R&D tax credit involves several steps:

  1. Identify Qualified Activities: Review your business activities to identify those that qualify for the credit.
  2. Gather Documentation: Collect detailed records of your R&D activities, including project descriptions, employee timesheets, and expense receipts.
  3. Complete IRS Form 6765: This form is used to calculate and claim the credit.
  4. Submit with Tax Return: Attach Form 6765 to your federal tax return.


The R&D tax credit is claimed on your federal income tax return, so the deadline is typically the same as your tax filing deadline, including extensions. For most businesses, this is April 15th of the following year.

Understanding the Rates and Limitations

Federal and State Credits

The federal R&D tax credit can significantly reduce your tax liability. Additionally, many states offer their own R&D tax credits, which can further enhance your savings. For example, California provides a state R&D tax credit that complements the federal credit, allowing businesses to maximize their benefits.

Calculation Methods

There are two primary methods for calculating the federal R&D tax credit:

  • Regular Research Credit: Typically equals 20% of the QREs exceeding a base amount.
  • Alternative Simplified Credit (ASC): Equals 14% of the QREs exceeding 50% of the average QREs for the previous three years.

Restrictions and Limitations

While the R&D tax credit offers substantial benefits, there are some restrictions to be aware of:

  • Non-Refundable Credit: The credit can only reduce your tax liability to zero; it cannot generate a refund.
  • Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): For years prior to 2016, the credit could not be used to offset AMT. However, the PATH Act now allows certain small businesses to use the credit against AMT.

The Role of R&D Tax Consultants and Firms

When to Hire a Consultant

Navigating the complexities of the R&D tax credit can be challenging, especially for SMEs without in-house tax expertise. Hiring a consultant or a specialized firm can help ensure that you maximize your credit while maintaining compliance with IRS guidelines. Consultants can assist with:

  • Identifying qualified activities and expenses.
  • Gathering and organizing documentation.
  • Completing and filing the necessary forms.

Choosing the Right Consultant

When selecting a consultant, consider the following:

  • Experience: Look for consultants with a proven track record in securing R&D tax credits for businesses similar to yours.
  • Reputation: Check references and reviews from previous clients.
  • Fee Structure: Understand how the consultant charges for their services, whether it's a flat fee, hourly rate, or contingency basis.

Real-World Examples

Example 1: Software Company

A small software company in California spends $500,000 on R&D activities, including wages, supplies, and contract research. By claiming the federal R&D tax credit using the ASC method, the company calculates a credit of $14,000. Additionally, they qualify for California's state R&D tax credit, further reducing their tax liability.

Example 2: Manufacturing Business

A medium-sized manufacturing firm invests $1 million in developing a new production process. The firm's QREs include employee wages, materials, and payments to an external engineering firm. By working with an R&D tax credit consultant, the company identifies $800,000 in qualifying expenses and claims a federal credit of $112,000 using the Regular Research Credit method.

State-Specific Guidelines and Considerations

While the federal R&D tax credit provides substantial benefits, many states offer additional credits that can further enhance your savings. However, eligibility criteria, rates, and application processes vary by state. For example:

  • California: Offers a state R&D tax credit that mirrors the federal credit but with different calculation methods and rates.
  • Other States: Many states, including Texas, New York, and Massachusetts, have their own versions of R&D tax credit programs. It's essential to review state-specific guidelines to maximize your benefits.

Common Questions and Answers

What Activities Qualify for the R&D Tax Credit?

Qualified activities include developing or improving products, processes, or software that involve a process of experimentation and aim to eliminate technical uncertainty.

How Much Can My Business Save?

The amount of savings varies based on your qualifying expenses and the calculation method used. Federal credits can range from 6% to 20% of QREs, while state credits vary.

What Documentation is Required?

Detailed records of R&D activities, employee timesheets, expense receipts, and project descriptions are essential to substantiate your claim.

Can Startups Benefit from the R&D Tax Credit?

Yes, startups can benefit from the R&D tax credit. The PATH Act allows certain small businesses to use the credit to offset payroll taxes, providing a significant advantage for early-stage companies.


The R&D tax credit is a powerful tool that can help small and medium-sized businesses invest in innovation and growth. By understanding the eligibility criteria, application process, and potential benefits, your business can leverage this credit to offset R&D costs and enhance your competitive edge. Whether you're a software company developing new applications or a manufacturing firm refining production processes, the R&D tax credit can provide substantial financial relief. Consider consulting with an expert to ensure you maximize your benefits and maintain compliance with IRS guidelines.

For more information on the R&D tax credit and how it can benefit your business, visit the IRS website or book a free consultation with Scout to see if you're eligible for these credits.