On the Road to SBIR/STTR Grant Success: NIH vs NSF grants – How do I Choose Where to Send my Application?

April 4, 2021

By ScienceDocs NIH SBIR grant writer Dr. Marcy


The US government funded Small Business Innovation Reward (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are an excellent source of non-dilutive capital for startup companies. Although SBIR/STTR funding is available from the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and National Science Foundation (NSF), we’ll be comparing two commonly used options available for biomedical research companies- NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which accounts for nearly all of the awards in HHS. The grant application process for both of these agencies is set up in sequential stages- Phase 1 and a follow up Phase 2. As the distinctions are most apparent for agency interests and the Phase 1 application process, we will highlight those differences below for NIH vs NSF grants.


NSF – Perfect Your Company’s Pitch NSF Grants

The NSF seeks innovative, high risk/high impact research and development projects that have a strong case for commercialization. The agency provides a list of Technology Topic Areas of interest, but encourages proposals within all areas of science and engineering. In general, NSF is not interested in funding incremental modifications of established products, clinical trials, or studies done for regulatory purposes. If questions remain about the potential fit with NSF interests, the company is encouraged to contact a NSF SBIR/STTR Program Director.  In advance of such a conversation, send a one-page document summarizing the company’s innovation, objectives, commercial impact and team. In the past few years, the NSF SBIR/STTR program has moved to require submission of a ‘Project Pitch’ prior to submitting an application. The Project Pitch is a brief (~1500 word) summary of a company’s technology, research objectives, market opportunity and team. The electronic application can be filled out at any time during the year, and the agency will respond within 3-4 weeks with either a decline, a request for more information, or an invitation to submit a Phase 1 application within 12 months.


SBIR/STTR application submission windows are quarterly and for 2021, end on March 4, June 3, September 2 and December 2.  The budget limit is $256,000 (includes direct costs, indirect costs and small business fee), and the grant period is 6-12 months. The heart of the application is a Project Description that addresses the commercial opportunity, technical solution, research and development plan with objectives, and company team. Note that NSF does not offer a ‘Fast Track’ combined Phase 1 and 2 award, and that a company must have a Phase 1 award to be eligible for a subsequent larger Phase 2 award. Proposals are evaluated with regard to intellectual merit, broader impact (benefit to society) and commercial impact. Applicants will receive a response no more than 6 months after submission, and if accepted, can start receiving funds no more than 7 months after submission. If the application is declined, the company can submit a revised application in the next quarterly window.


NIH GrantsNIH – Company and Institute Alignment

The NIH SBIR/STTR program seeks to promote health and support innovative research and development that has the potential for commercialization. Each Institute has areas of focus (Research Topics), and it is critical that your company’s goals be aligned with an Institute’s interests. It is helpful to contact the SBIR/STTR Program Officer prior to submitting an application to be certain of this match. Advance submission of a one-page summary of your company’s technology and planned Specific Aims will facilitate a brief conversation.  The application process is in two sequential stages- Phase 1 and Phase 2, with a ‘Fast Track’ option that combines the two.  There are 3 deadlines for application submission- January 5, April 5 and September 5 (the precise dates may be different if they fall on a holiday or weekend), and some proposal solicitations may have alternate deadlines.  


The most important components of the SBIR/STTR Phase 1 application are the Specific Aims and Research Strategy; commercialization potential should be briefly described, but only the Phase 2 application has a dedicated Commercialization Plan section. The budget limit is $256,580 (includes direct costs, indirect costs and small business fee), but a waiver may be available depending on the Institute and research topic. The grant period is generally 6-12 months. Reviewers evaluate the submission’s Significance, Investigators, Innovation, Approach and Environment.  Applicants receive an evaluative response (Impact Score) approximately 3 months after submission, but a funding decision is not made for at least another 5 months. Companies with poor Impact Scores may resubmit a revised application taking into account reviewers’ comments at the next submission deadline date.


How to Choose: NIH vs NSF grants?

The SBIR/STTR Phase 1 grant programs from the NIH and NSF both prioritize innovation and are very similar with respect to the time to funding after application submission, the funding limit and the grant time period. The main distinction between the programs is the emphasis on commercialization aspects earlier in the NSF application process. Both the initial Project Pitch and the Phase 1 application require input about the technology’s commercialization potential and this is a scorable criterion for reviewers of each. The successful NSF applicant will have a clear understanding of the competition and market for the company’s innovation as gained through direct contact and discussions with potential customers or licensees. This is less important for an NIH Phase 1 application that instead has more emphasis on the research strategy.  NSF has broad interests in science and engineering, while NIH is focused more on specific therapies or detection technologies for diseases/conditions. A search of the NIH RePORTER database for awardees and review of recent NSF funded companies may provide additional insights about what constitutes success for both agencies. There are no rigid boundaries of agency priorities, and as the NSF and NIH have overlapping interests for several health areas, a conversation with a Program Officer/Director from each agency may help sort out the best destination for your application.


Useful websites



NSF SBIR/STTR Information



NSF SBIR Phase 1 Program Solicitation for 2021



NSF STTR Phase 1 Program Solicitation for 2021



NSF SBIR/STTR Technology Topic Areas



NSF SBIR/STTR Program Director Contacts





NIH SBIR/STTR Information



NIH SBIR/STTR Omnibus Solicitations and Funding Opportunities



NIH SBIR/STTR Program Descriptions and Research Topics by Institute



HHS SBIR/STTR Program Officer Contacts



SBIR/STTR Awardee Information


NIH RePORTER database



NSF Current Awardees



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