On the Road to NIH SBIR/STTR Grant Success: Strategies for Preparing a Standout SBIR Grant Application
December 28, 2021
Assembling an SBIR grant application is a process with countless details, but here are a few strategic steps to enhance your proposal. These guides are specific for NIH applications, but the topics may have relevance for other agencies as well.
Talk to the Program Officer
Start the SBIR grant application process at least three months in advance of the deadline, and use this site to locate the Program Officer at the Institute/Center that will handle your application. Begin with drafting two to three research goals that will be the foundation of the Specific Aims section. Prepare a non-confidential paragraph that summarizes the project background, importance, innovation and relevance to the Institute’s mission, along with your Specific Aims. Send an electronic copy of your Summary/Specific Aims to the Program Officer and arrange time for a brief phone call to discuss your project. During the conversation, ask directly if your project fits with the research interests of the Institute, and request suggestions for the Scientific Review Group (SRG) to handle the review. The Program Officer may be able to provide advice on other funding opportunities available for your technology.
Consider Your Audience
Keep in mind that your application audience is a group of scientific reviewers, and many will not be familiar with the details of your technology or research methods. Take the time to write clearly, with minimal use of abbreviations/jargon and with a level of enthusiasm to maintain a reviewer’s interest. As described here, applications are reviewed initially by two or three scientists from the SRG, who prepare written comments about the Significance, Investigators, Innovation, Approach, and Environment, and assign an overall Impact Score. Reviewers are under a time constraint to have several reviews completed by a deadline, so provide clear statements that address each of these aspects.
Assemble a Well-Rounded Team
The ultimate research goal of an SBIR proposal is a commercial product, but emerging companies may not have all of the relevant experience required to transform a research finding into a marketable entity. Use of industry consultants in areas such as pharmacology, regulatory affairs, and manufacturing can help fill capability gaps and significantly strengthen a research team. A physician advisor with subject matter expertise can provide end user insights gained from patient caregiving. Although the timeline to develop a therapy can be a decade or longer, it’s best to get expert input as early as possible to anticipate potential issues and avoid choices that could lead to development failure. Most SBIR/STTR budgets can accommodate limited input (10-20 hours) from a highly qualified expert to significantly enhance the ‘Investigators’ aspect of the proposal.
Have a Goldilocks Approach
An optimal scope of work described in the Research Strategy is important, but especially critical for a successful Phase 1 SBIR grant application. The Specific Aims need to be achievable and provide a clear demonstration of project feasibility, as this will provide the basis for a Phase 2 application. A reasonable strategic goal would be to obtain enough data as quickly as possible in order to submit a Phase 2 application with access to a significantly larger pool of funds. It’s best to avoid an overly ambitious scope of work, yet avoid a research strategy that has limited innovation and carries no risk.
Work with Experts
A successful SBIR grant application requires a significant amount of preparation time and careful navigation of a complicated process. Researchers at small business entities may have prior experience with academic grants, but there are distinct requirements for obtaining an SBIR/STTR award. Working with an experienced grant preparation contractor can help your company avoid common pitfalls, save valuable time, and access grant funds sooner.
NIH Proposal Selection Process and Review Criteria
NIH SBIR/STTR Agency Program Officer Contact Information
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