R&D Tax Credit: What Counts as Qualified Research Expenses?

Qualified Research Expenses

Discovering the Value of Qualified Research Expenses

Understanding qualified research expenses (QREs) can unlock significant tax savings for your business. In simple terms, these are the costs associated with activities aimed at creating or improving products, processes, or software through experimentation. Here’s a quick rundown of what typically qualifies:

  • Employee wages: Salaries for those directly involved in R&D.
  • Supplies: Materials used during experiments.
  • Contract research: Payments to third parties for conducting R&D — only 65% is eligible.
  • Cloud computing costs: Software and computing expenses directly linked to R&D activities.

By grasping how to categorize and claim these expenses, your business can leverage the Research and Development (R&D) tax credit effectively. This credit is designed to incentivize innovation, reduce tax liabilities, and boost cash flow, especially crucial for small businesses aiming to grow.

Philip Wentworth, Jr., co-founder of Rockerbox, emphasizes, “Our proprietary technology streamlines the R&D tax credit process, helping businesses improve cash flow by up to 40%.”

Read on to learn how identifying and claiming these expenses can benefit your bottom line.

What Are Qualified Research Expenses (QREs)?

In-House Research Expenses

Qualified Research Expenses (QREs) are key to claiming the R&D tax credit. According to IRS Section 41(b), QREs include both in-house and contract research expenses.

In-house research expenses are costs directly incurred by your company for research activities. These expenses can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Employee Wages: Wages paid to employees for performing qualified research, directly supervising, or supporting such research. This includes taxable wages reported on Form W-2, like salaries, bonuses, and stock options, but excludes non-taxable fringe benefits. For example, if a scientist conducts lab experiments, their wages qualify.
  2. Supplies: Tangible items used in the research process that are not capitalized or depreciated. This could be raw materials used to create prototypes. However, general office supplies or the research facility itself do not qualify.
  3. Computer Usage Fees: Costs for using computers in conducting qualified research, as per regulations set by the Secretary of the Treasury. This includes expenses for cloud computing services used exclusively for R&D.

Contract Research Expenses

Contract research expenses are costs incurred when your business outsources research to a third party. These expenses are subject to specific rules:

  1. 65% Rule: Only 65% of the total payment made to a third party for qualified research can be claimed as a QRE. This is to ensure that the taxpayer retains substantial rights to the research results and bears the economic risk.
  2. Agreement Requirements: The expenses must be paid under an agreement that:
  3. Is entered into before the research starts.
  4. Specifies that the research is conducted on behalf of the taxpayer.
  5. Requires the taxpayer to pay regardless of the research’s success.

A practical example of contract research is hiring an external lab to test a new product formulation. If the contract meets the above criteria, 65% of the payment can be included as a QRE.

By understanding and identifying these qualified research expenses, your business can maximize the R&D tax credit, boosting innovation and improving cash flow.

Research and Development - qualified research expenses

Next, we’ll dive into the activities that qualify for the R&D tax credit and how to ensure your research meets the IRS requirements.

Qualifying Activities for R&D Tax Credit

To qualify for the R&D tax credit, your activities must pass the IRS’s four-part test. This test ensures that your research is technological in nature, involves an experimental process, and is aimed at developing or improving a business component.

Technological Uncertainty

Technological uncertainty is a key criterion. This means your research must aim to discover information to eliminate uncertainty about the development or improvement of a product or process. There are three main areas where uncertainty can arise:

  • Capability: Can you achieve the desired outcome?
  • Method: What is the best way to achieve it?
  • Design: What is the appropriate design for the desired outcome?

For instance, if you’re developing a new software tool, you might not know if your team can actually build it (capability), the best coding language to use (method), or how to design the user interface (design).

Process of Experimentation

The process of experimentation involves systematically testing different approaches to solve a problem. This isn’t just simple trial and error; it requires a structured method to evaluate alternatives. Here are some ways to carry out this process:

  • Systematic trial and error: Testing various methods in a controlled way to see what works best.
  • Modeling: Creating a simplified version of your project to test different scenarios.
  • Simulation: Using computer programs to simulate different outcomes.

A good example of this is Manufacturer X, a pharmaceutical company experimenting with new chemical compounds to create a cholesterol medication with fewer side effects. Their researchers use simulations to predict how different compounds will interact in the body, systematically testing each one.

Four-Part Test

To qualify for the R&D tax credit, your activities must meet these four criteria:

  1. Technological in Nature: Your research must rely on principles of physical, biological, engineering, or computer sciences. For example, developing a new algorithm for fraud detection in retail would qualify.

  2. Elimination of Uncertainty: Your goal must be to discover information that helps eliminate uncertainty about the development or improvement of a business component. For instance, a restaurant exploring blockchain technology to track food sources aims to eliminate uncertainty about food safety.

  3. Permitted Purpose: The activity must aim to improve the function, performance, reliability, or quality of a product or process. Designing a more efficient HVAC system in the construction industry fits this criterion.

  4. Process of Experimentation: You must use a systematic method to evaluate different approaches. This could involve trial and error, modeling, or simulation, as seen in the examples above.

By ensuring your research activities meet these criteria, you can qualify for the R&D tax credit, which can significantly boost your business’s innovation and cash flow.

Next, we’ll explore specific examples of qualified research expenses to help you identify which costs can be included in your R&D tax credit claim.

Examples of Qualified Research Expenses

Identifying which costs qualify as research expenses is crucial for maximizing your R&D tax credit. Let’s break down some key examples to help you understand what counts.

Employee Wages

Employee wages can be a significant part of your qualified research expenses. However, not all wages qualify. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Qualified Services: Only wages for employees engaged in qualified research activities are eligible. These activities include:
  2. Conducting Research: Employees directly involved in conducting experiments or developing prototypes.
  3. Direct Supervision: Supervisors who directly oversee the research activities.
  4. Direct Support: Staff who support the research activities, such as technicians and lab assistants.

  5. Documentation: To claim these wages, you must provide documentation like W-2s, payroll registers, and time tracking data. This ensures that only the time spent on qualified research is included.

Supply Costs

Supply costs can also be included in your R&D tax credit claim. Here’s what qualifies:

  1. Tangible Property: Supplies must be tangible items used in the research process. This includes raw materials, chemicals, and other items consumed during experiments.
  2. Non-Depreciable: Supplies that are capitalized or depreciated do not qualify. For example, lab equipment that is depreciated over time is not eligible.
  3. Examples: Raw materials used to create and test prototypes, chemicals used in lab experiments, and other consumables directly related to the research activities.

Contract Research

Contract research expenses can be included if certain criteria are met. Here’s what to consider:

  1. Third-Party Services: These are expenses paid to third parties conducting research on your behalf. The IRS allows you to claim 65% of these costs.
  2. Economic Risk: You must bear the economic risk of the research, meaning you pay for the research even if it’s not successful.
  3. Substantial Rights: You must maintain substantial rights to the research results. This means you have the right to use the findings in your business, even if you don’t have exclusive rights.

By understanding these examples of qualified research expenses, you can better identify which costs to include in your R&D tax credit claim. Next, we’ll address some frequently asked questions about qualified research expenses to further clarify any doubts you may have.

Frequently Asked Questions about Qualified Research Expenses

What is a qualified research expense?

A qualified research expense (QRE) refers to costs that businesses incur while conducting research and development (R&D) activities that meet specific IRS criteria. These expenses can help reduce your tax liability through the R&D tax credit program.

Qualified research expenses include:

  • Wages: Payments to employees who are directly involved in R&D activities, supervising R&D, or supporting R&D efforts.
  • Supplies: Tangible property used in R&D, such as raw materials and lab equipment.
  • Contract Research: Payments to third parties for conducting R&D on behalf of the business, with 65% of these costs qualifying.

What qualifies as a R&D expense?

R&D expenses encompass a wide range of costs related to the development and improvement of products or processes. According to the IRS, these expenses must pass the four-part test to qualify:

  1. Section 174 Test: The expenditure must be connected to your business and serve as an R&D cost in an experimental or laboratory sense.
  2. Discovering Technological Information Test: The research must aim to discover information that helps eliminate uncertainty in creating or improving a business component.
  3. Business Component Test: The information discovered should be intended for use in developing a new or improved business component.
  4. Process of Experimentation Test: The research must involve a process of experimentation, such as systematic trial and error, modeling, or simulation.

What are qualified research expenses under section 174?

Section 174 of the Internal Revenue Code defines what R&D expenses are and how they should be treated for tax purposes. Under Section 174, expenses must be capitalized and amortized over several years. These expenses include:

  • Direct Costs: Such as wages for employees involved in R&D, materials used in the research, and costs of obtaining a patent.
  • Indirect Costs: Like employee benefits, utilities, and rent, which are incidental to the research process.

Important Note: Section 174 casts a broader net than Section 41, capturing more expenses like pilot models and 100% of contract research costs.

By understanding these definitions and requirements, you can ensure your business maximizes its R&D tax credits. Leveraging Rockerbox’s proprietary technology can automate these tax credit programs, improving your cash flow by up to 40%.

R D Expenses - qualified research expenses


In summary, understanding and leveraging qualified research expenses (QREs) can significantly reduce your tax bill and improve your bottom line. By identifying and organizing your R&D activities and expenses, you can maximize your R&D tax credits.

Rockerbox’s proprietary technology simplifies this process. It automates tax credit programs, ensuring that you capture every eligible expense. This not only reduces your tax liability but can also improve your cash flow by up to 40%.

Imagine having extra funds to reinvest in your business, drive innovation, and stay ahead of the competition. Leveraging Rockerbox’s expertise means you don’t have to navigate the complex R&D tax credit landscape alone. Our team and technology make it easy and efficient.

To learn more about how Rockerbox can help you maximize your R&D tax credits and improve your cash flow, visit our R&D Tax Credit service page.

By taking advantage of these opportunities, you can turn your R&D efforts into a powerful growth engine for your business.