How Does the R&D Tax Credit Work? Here's Everything You Need to Know

4 Minute Read
Posted by Randy Eickhoff on Sep 22, 2023 1:30:00 PM

The Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit is a powerful tax incentive encouraging U.S. businesses to invest in innovation and technology. At its core, the R&D tax credit offers financial relief through a dollar-for-dollar tax benefit to companies that participate in qualifying research and development activities by reducing their overall tax.

Do you qualify for the R&D tax credit? And is it worth it for your business to go through the process of filing for this incentive? Knowing how the R&D tax credit works, recognizing eligibility criteria, and understanding its many benefits can help you make an informed decision for your business. 

What is the R&D Tax Credit — A General Overview of This Tax Incentive

The R&D tax credit is a government-sponsored program promoting innovation and stimulating economic growth. It is designed to reward companies that invest time, money, and resources in activities that: 

  • Advance technology
  • Create new products
  • Improve existing processes

By offering an incentive around R&D, the government hopes to support U.S. businesses that compete on a national and global level with technology and innovation development. 

Understand the Benefits of Research and Development Tax Credit

The research and development tax credit offers significant advantages to businesses and the overall economy. Qualifying companies experience: 

Cost Savings

By reducing tax liabilities, the R&D tax credit directly increases cash flow and helps businesses allocate more resources to further innovation.

Encouragement for Innovation

The R&D tax credit incentivizes businesses to invest in research and development, fostering technological advancements and encouraging a culture of innovation.

Competitive Edge

Companies that take advantage of the R&D tax credit can gain a competitive advantage by developing technologically advanced products and services.

Job Creation

Increased investments in R&D can lead to the creation of skilled jobs, stimulating economic growth.

Eligibility Criteria — The Qualifications of the R&D Tax Credit

Businesses that meet the requirements of the R&D tax credit must engage in qualified research activities. A qualified research activity must meet all the standards of a four-part R&D test:

Permitted Purpose

The research must be conducted to create a new or improved product, process, technique, formula, or software or to resolve technical uncertainty.

Technological in Nature

The R&D activities must involve creating or improving products, processes, or services through technology, science, or engineering.

Eliminate Uncertainty

Businesses must demonstrate that there was technical uncertainty or a risk of failure when attempting the R&D activities. Companies must be able to show that desired outcomes were not already attained or achievable through standard practices.

Include Experimentation

Businesses must show a process of experimentation that involves systematic trials and evaluations of various alternatives to resolve uncertainties and achieve desired results during R&D activities. 

If an activity meets all four criteria, certain expenses associated with the project can be used to calculate the tax credit. These expenses include: 

Employee Wages

Salaries paid to employees engaged in qualified research and development activities can be included when filing for the R&D tax credit. 

Contract Expenses

Any expenses associated with a U.S. based third-party can also be used when calculating the overall R&D tax credit. IRS regulations require that the filing business must maintain substantial rights to the research and can demonstrate that it had to bear the economic risk of the development for the expenses to qualify. 

Supply Costs

Supplies and materials used to conduct qualifying research activities can also be included. Supplies must be tangible personal property used for pilot models and testing that must be expensed and cannot be capitalized.

Qualifying R&D Activities — General Guidelines to Consider

Businesses can claim R&D tax credit for a wide range of activities across various industries, including but not limited to:

  • Developing new products or improving existing ones
  • Creating new manufacturing processes or enhancing existing ones
  • Advancing software solutions, algorithms, or AI applications
  • Conducting clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies
  • Enhancing environmental sustainability or energy efficiency
  • Developing new materials or compounds with unique properties

Calculating the Research and Development Tax Credit

Two methods exist for calculating the R&D tax credit: the Regular Research Credit method (RRC) and the Alternative Simplified Credit method (ASC).

The RRC method, also known as the traditional method, allows businesses to claim a 20% tax credit on qualified research expenses (QREs) exceeding a base amount. While potentially offering a higher credit, this method is more complex, requiring average annual gross receipts from the past four years and requires a historical analysis of past R&D expenditures that can span a decade.

In contrast, the ASC method simplifies the process, relying solely on QREs from the previous three years to determine eligibility and calculate the credit.

To optimize tax benefits, the IRS recommends businesses explore both methods to identify the most advantageous option for their specific circumstances.

Download Acena Consulting's R&D Calculator

Wondering how much your business could potentially save with the R&D tax credit? Acena Consulting’s R&D Calculator can help do the math for you. Click here to download this free tool and see for yourself the total cost savings you could be missing out on.

Randy Eickhoff

Randy Eickhoff

Acena Consulting President Randy Eickhoff, licensed CPA, has partnered with more than 200 companies during more than 20 years of experience securing tax credits and other government incentives. His corporate partners range from multinational technology firms to smaller, privately held manufacturing, sports, and technology enterprises.