NSF SBIR grant

NSF SBIR Grant Pitch: Tips for Writing Your Technical Objectives and Challenges Section

A Note on Investment of Your Time and Energy:

Preparing a competitive proposal is a major investment of time and energy. Success rates vary year-to-year, but usually only 10-15% of proposals are selected for an award. Therefore, do not expect to submit a low quality proposal and hope for the best. Due to limited funds, many high quality proposals are not selected for funding.



The NSF SBIR/STTR program provides non-dilutive funding for small businesses with the goal of “transforming scientific and engineering discoveries into products and services with commercial and societal impact.” They want to fund high-risk revolutionary ideas in which there is still some outstanding challenge that needs to be overcome to be successful. You must have evidence that your product or service will meet an important, unmet need. Your technology should allow its end-users to make decisions that they otherwise could not have made without your technology. Simply being better, faster, or more efficient than the competition often will not be good enough. If this is the case, your project will be considered incremental, and the NSF SBIR/STTR program will direct you to seek funding elsewhere. You can view success stories here. For a Phase I project, your goal should be to establish scientific and technical feasibility of a new concept or innovation that could be developed into new products, processes, or services…research with a business goal in mind.


The NSF SBIR Grant Pitch:

If you decide to apply for an NSF SBIR/STTR grant, submitting a Project Pitch is the first step. The Project Pitch consists of four sections: (1) Technology Innovation, (2) Technical Objectives and Challenges, (3) Market Opportunity, and (4) Company and Team. When preparing your Project Pitch to the NSF, you should already have a targeted research plan in mind to advance your idea. If your Project Pitch is a good fit for the NSF SBIR/STTR program, you will receive an invitation from the NSF to submit a full proposal. If you’re not invited to submit, you’ll be told why your project is not appropriate for the program. Many people struggle with preparing the Technical Objectives and Challenges section. This section is limited to 500 words. So, what activities are acceptable? What activities are unacceptable? Let’s dive in.


What are technical challenges?

Technical challenges in an NSF SBIR grant pitch are the significant unknowns or gaps that you seek to address. In other words, what still needs to be solved before you are scientifically comfortable selling your technology to your target market? In what scientific and technical areas do you still need to establish feasibility? Technical challenges must carry sufficient conceptual risk beyond just scalability issues or failures or delays in the manufacturing process. Your team (those who you anticipate paying with this grant money) must have the experience and expertise necessary to attempt to overcome these challenges.


What are technical objectives?

Technical objectives in an NSF SBIR grant pitch are specific milestones that must be tied to quantifiable success metrics (i.e., measurable outcomes). In other words, what do you hope to accomplish by the end of the grant period with this grant money? You must explain how achieving your objectives will de-risk your idea and lay a strong foundation for future work. Technical objectives are addressed by performing fundamental science and engineering tasks (i.e., experiments, computations, etc.) which should lead to generation of new data. Your tasks should involve a high degree of conceptual risk. For a Phase I project, you should scope your work such that you perform the minimum work necessary to establish feasibility of your idea. Your budget is limited. Be realistic and do not overscope your work.


What is unacceptable?

As you prepare this important section, take note about which tasks and activities are considered unacceptable and will lead to rejection. The NSF is not interested in funding the following types of projects:

  • Incremental modification of established products or proven concepts
  • Straightforward engineering or manufacturing efforts with little risk
  • Evaluation or testing of existing products or features
  • Basic scientific research without commercial potential
  • Tasks that depend on the success of previous tasks
  • Non-technical efforts such as business development, market research, sales and marketing, patent costs


What is acceptable?

  • Systematic, intensive studies directed toward greater knowledge or understanding of the subject being studied
  • Systematic studies directed specifically toward applying new knowledge to meet a recognized need
  • The systematic application of knowledge to produce useful materials, devices, and systems or methods. Development may include designing, developing, and improving prototypes and processes to meet specific requirements


Closing Words:

If you cannot meet these fundamentals, the NSF will not give you the green light to submit a full proposal. If your NSF SBIR Pitch is rejected, the NSF is not saying you have a bad or simple project – it’s just not the type of work the NSF SBIR/STTR program is designed to fund.

Should you need some help with your NSF SBIR pitch or proposal, we do these every day. Feel free to contact us to assist you!


grant consultant

Learn more about NSF SBIR Grant Consultant Dr. Greening


Grant Proposals – The Process


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