7 Tips on How to Win Non-Diluting Federal SBIR, STTR Grants

By Iris Gonzalez
Pipette amidst test tubes in a lab. Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash.

Scientists are always looking for ways to fund their research. But what if you want to translate discoveries into a viable product or service for the marketplace? Read Part 1 on what you should know about non-diluting federal SBIR and STTR funding to learn about tapping into the Federal Government’s “America’s seed fund” of early-stage funding.

If you are ready to prepare a winning proposal to win funding for your research, read the seven tips we collected from experts and successful researchers who have earned a Small Business Innovation Research Program, or SBIR grant, or an STTR or Small Business Technology Transfer grant.

Design your R&D approach with commercialization in mind.

StemBioSys senior researcher Travis Block has won two SBIR grants, one to fund work at StemBioSys, the other for a collaboration based out the University of Michigan. He said scientists learn to develop experiments using a hypothesis-driven approach. Designing a research concept for commercializing means understanding that the process may not be hypothesis-driven as much as it is product-driven.

“A researcher can provide the hypothesis and science, but that’s not enough to get a product to market,” Block said. “Think about designing your experiment with the product in mind.”

Assemble your strongest mix of team members.

Choosing the right mix of team members helps when it comes to submitting a competitive application for R&D that can make it to the finish line—the market.

“You need a solid team to commercialize your science,” Block said. “You’ll need regulatory experts, people who understand reimbursement and supply chain, and someone who can handle the manufacturing at scale.”

Researchers should also look beyond the core science area called for in the grant topic and include experts from related supporting fields for a robust technical approach.

“Nearly all SBIR and STTR awards require a multidisciplinary collaboration,” said Eva Garland, CEO of Eva Garland Consulting, a firm that advises clients on strategies for planning, writing, and managing SBIR-STTR grants. “These are the ones that have the best outcomes and reflect a ‘team science’ mindset.”

Look at SBIR or STTR funding priorities.

Make sure your research addresses a problem on the SBIR-STTR priority list of topics of interest for the specific agency. When applying for an SBIR grant, Garland said, your impact score is computed based on the problem you are solving, why is it worth solving, and the competitive market for existing research, as well as, competing solutions already available.

“An agency’s research topics list is a ‘blinking green light’ of what these agencies are interested in and want to fund,” GaitIQ founder and CEO Rick Morris said. “What you’re doing as a science entrepreneur is looking for problems that require research for a viable solution.”

Ask the SBIR-STTR program officers questions to gain insights.

Dr. Carlos Jaramillo, assistant professor and director of resident research for traumatic brain injury in San Antonio’s Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center at the South Texas Veterans Health Care System is the primary investigator for the human subjects testing component of the GaitIQ diagnostic tool for early signs of dementia.

He recommends talking to the appropriate program officer to solicit feedback on your concept. Researchers may email an executive summary to an SBIR-STTR program director to help gauge whether a project meets the program’s intellectual merit and commercial impact criteria. A list of all program directors and their contact information can be found here.

“Reaching out to them has always been encouraged,” Jaramillo said. “Their feedback can help you tailor your grant submission and stay true to what you’re trying to do.”

When the pre-release period for a solicitation opens, ask program officers questions as early as possible for one-on-one discussions, said Department of Defense Health Agency and U.S. Army SBIR-STTR deputy program manager Colleen Gibney.

“Once you’re in the last month before the application period closes, all questions that are asked become part of the public record,” Gibney said. “By that time, only ask general questions, so you do not reveal specifics about your approach for others to read.”

Tailor your submission to the federal agency’s mission and SBIR-STTR priorities.

Bijo Mathew is director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Technology Commercialization Center in The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Institute for Economic Development. His expert team advises clients and provides technical assistance to improve the chances of receiving an award. He or another adviser will often sit in on the conference calls to the agency program manager.

He recommends that clients schedule a conference call with the program manager and have “your team present, so they’re part of the discussion. You will benefit from multiple views on what is being spoken on.”

“The federal agencies are all different,” Mathew said. “What each one wants from a company will be different.”

It is not enough to review SBIR-STTR proposals for technical and commercial aspects.  “Submit a proposal that is culturally relevant and mission-oriented for that specific agency,” Gibney stresses. “And do let multiple people review your proposal.”

Don’t make the most common mistake.

The one mistake Gibney sees most often is a lack of understanding of why the agency is funding the area of interest.

“I’ve seen applicants unable to understand the ‘pull of the customer and their constraints,'” Gibney said. “You need to understand, what’s making them ask for this solution? If this is not funded, what happens? Why would they pay for this R&D?”

Be persistent.

Block has applied six or seven times and says persistence is the number-one quality needed to win grants.

“Even if a team does not succeed in getting funding, researchers will gain practical knowledge that is immensely beneficial for the technology commercialization pathway,” Mathew said. “Learning how and when to take risks is a critical catalyst necessary for an innovative company to be successful.”


Featured image is of a pipette amidst test tubes in a lab. Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash.

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