Regardless of how much we earn, which politicians we support, or what type of music we like to listen to, one thing that unites pretty much all Americans is the desire for a lower tax bill. For businesses, large and small, it’s no different. As for tax credits? They make this possible.
However, for entrepreneurs, it is nearly impossible to keep up with the latest changes to the tax code. In this post, we take a deep dive into the Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit, outlining how small businesses can take advantage of this beneficial tax break.
What is the Research and Development Tax Credit (R&D Tax Credit)?
The Research and Development Tax Credit, or R&D Tax Credit, is a federal and state tax credit under the Internal Revenue Code section 41 to incentivize companies to perform research and development activities within the United States.
The credit has expired and been extended several times since first introduced in the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. In 2015, the Obama administration made the credit permanent, allowing the U.S. to become more internationally competitive with research and development opportunities.
The R&D Tax Credit provides major benefits — think in billions of dollars for companies each year — making it the most significant U.S. tax incentive, in terms of the sheer dollar amount. However, tax credits don’t always come easily to the little guy, and the R&D Tax Credit definitely has some hoops to jump through.
Yet, one of the most significant issues isn’t the programs themselves, but it’s the equal access, or lack thereof, that taxpayers have to them. While big corporations have historically had the upper hand over small businesses in receiving their benefits, the legislative changes in recent years have made this credit more accessible.
What exactly qualifies as research and development?
It’s more inclusive than most would assume — many businesses perform activities for the R&D Tax Credit without even realizing it. Examples of industries that often qualify include biotech, software development, and agriculture. (Most companies that have an engineer or developer on staff would meet the requirements.)
To help determine if you qualify, the IRS has outlined a straightforward 4-part test:
- Permitted purpose: Are you developing or improving a product, process, formula or software?
- Technological in nature: Is your work within physical or biological sciences, engineering, or computer sciences?
- Elimination of uncertainty: Are you asking questions like, “Can we develop it?” Or “How do we develop it?”
- Process of experimentation: Are you systematically evaluating one or more alternatives?
What are some R&D Tax Credit examples?
Many people ask: what type of expenses can be claimed?
Three types of expenses can be included in the Research and Development Tax Credit calculation for your qualified project: wages, contract expenses, and supplies.
Wages are very often the largest component. Salaries paid to U.S.-based engineers, designers, and direct supervisors are all qualified expenses. A portion of payments. made to U.S.-based contractors are also eligible.
Lastly, the supplies that are non-capital/non-depreciable materials used or consumed in the development process, such as prototype materials, can be claimed.
8 Reasons Startups Miss the Research and Development Tax Credit
1. It sounds too good to be true.
Entrepreneurs expect to work hard for funding, so they can initially be skeptical about this benefit they’ve already earned. The R&D Tax Credit is a legitimate government program that rewards investments in innovation.
2. I’m not earning any revenue, so I didn’t think I qualified for the R&D Tax Credit.
Companies don’t need revenue to claim the credit and don’t need to be paying income tax. The credit can be taken as a payroll tax offset, up to $250K per year, by qualified small businesses. You are considered a qualified small business if you have less than $5 million in revenue and are within five years of your first gross receipt.
3. I don’t have any employees so I didn’t think I could take the R&D Tax Credit.
Although wages are typically the biggest component of the credit calculation, contracted costs and supplies are also eligible. If you take the R&D Tax Credit as a payroll tax offset but have no payroll, the credit can be carried forward to the next quarterly return. The credit doesn’t expire and continues to be available until it can be fully used against payroll tax.
4. I’m not a qualified small business, so I didn’t think I could claim the R&D Tax Credit.
While only qualified startups can take the R&D Tax Credit against payroll tax, other companies can take it against income tax. This benefit can then be carried forward for a period of 20 years. Credits generated in net loss years can be recorded as Deferred Tax Assets, enhancing your balance sheet and making your company more attractive to potential acquirers.
5. I might not do R&D work.
Many different industries and products qualify for this credit where development activities pass a four-part test. Most technology startups, including software companies, qualify.
6. My work wasn’t incorporated into my end product, so I didn’t think it qualified.
The work does not need to be successful to qualify. If you spent time and money working in a certain direction then needed to change, that effort still qualifies.
7. I already filed my taxes, so I thought it was too late to claim the R&D Tax Credit.
The R&D Tax Credit must be submitted with your annual business tax return. Some companies can amend their returns to monetize it as an income tax credit — and can even consider performing a ‘look back’ (up to 3 years) to capture unclaimed tax credits.
8. I thought the cost of an R&D study wouldn’t be worth the benefit.
The concept of an R&D Tax Credit is simple. The government wants to reward you for investing in innovation. While the concept is simple, a traditional R&D tax study is notoriously complex. The challenge is getting it done right for a reasonable effort and cost.
Research & Development Credit (R&D Tax Credit) FAQs
What is the research and development credit? Why is this credit so important to businesses?
A lot of companies either don’t know about this credit or don’t think they can qualify. People assume that R&D implies cutting-edge innovation, but that’s not the case from the tax perspective. The definition is so broad!
This credit is available to companies developing facets of their business, like processes or techniques, computer software, formulas, or inventions/products that give new or improved functionality, performance, reliability, or quality to their business.
How much is the R&D Tax Credit?
The federal credit can roughly be estimated at 6.5% of qualified research expenses. In Georgia, it can be up to 10% (a good example of Georgia being a tax-friendly state). The credit can be used to offset payroll taxes, income taxes, or AMT, depending on specific characteristics of the company claiming the credit.
How do you calculate the R&D Tax Credit?
There are two separate calculations on a federal level. Most states have their own calculation methodology, too, offering a credit to offset state tax liability. Regardless of calculation, all states consistently follow the federal R&D qualification guidelines.
You can also check out one of our webinars with Clarus R+D for further guidance on getting your R&D Tax Credit. Links to all of those resources in the description of this video!
What qualifies for an R&D Tax Credit? Who can claim the R&D Tax Credit? Why don’t some companies qualify for it?
Using contractors who aren’t located in the United States is a big one. Research and development must be US-based to maximize the tax credit. We also sometimes see companies who have received some type of government grant to do the research and development who do not qualify for the credit.
What are the main challenges for companies trying to claim the R&D Tax Credit?
Thinking they can do it on their own. We have guidance on what the IRS wants to see, but there are no specific requirements. That’s why it’s so beneficial to leverage an expert – they know what documentation is needed, understand how things should be set up and have the experience to help companies take full advantage of the R&D Tax Credit.
What are some R&D Tax Credit examples?
The credits you can qualify for depend on the industry! For example, your startup could qualify if you’re in the apparel, food & beverage, health care, or technology industry, just to name a few.
Is research and development tax deductible?
Yes, but the tax deduction is separate from the R&D Tax Credit. You can deduct your expenses like normal on your tax return, but the R&D Tax Credit is a benefit above and beyond that deduction.
Quick Tips from Us to Move Forward
The R&D Tax Credit can be incredibly impactful for a business. This credit can enable companies to take on additional headcount or provide capital back to the business. More companies qualify than they would think. It’s worth initiating a conversation with an expert to see if this is an option.
Talk to someone who specializes in accounting for the R&D Tax Credit.
The benefit of using a specialist is that they don’t get paid unless you get paid, so your interests are aligned. Plus, they aren’t limited to the same rules as your tax CPA because they don’t sign your tax return. Their usual fee on a contingency basis is 25-30% of the amount of the credit.
Look into other tax credits and deductions that you might be eligible for.
Check out this list of startup tax deductions & credits to see if you qualify for any.
Keep up with all important tax deadlines, and file an extension if needed.
Reach out for help if you need it!
Business taxes are complicated, and it can be stressful to try to keep up, stay compliant, and ensure that you’re not leaving money on the table. We are here to help! If you’re already an Acuity bookkeeping customer and would like to learn more about our tax practice, click here.
If you’re interested in learning more about our services and how we can get your financial engine up and running, send us a message! We’ll be happy to answer your questions while connecting you with our trusted partners.