How to Create a Competitive SBIR Application

09/27/21 | 8 MIN READ

Tips on how to craft a winning SBIR proposal, specifically the summary and aims page.

Grant writing is typically…

  • Slow
  • Painful
  • Adversarial

It is quite difficult to complete a competitive SBIR application. Notice the word competitive! In many cases, grant applications could be completed in a week or two, but that will almost certainly mean they are poorly-written and under-developed. A well thought out Phase I grant application can take anywhere from 300-400 hours to complete, even for a very skilled grant writer. Below are some tips you will need to consider when drafting a competitive grant application. 

🔬Read: What are SBIR/STTR Grants? to learn more about non-dilutive funding through the federal government.

Prerequisites

The first thing you will need when applying for an SBIR grant is an excellent writing skill set. More specifically, you will need an excellent SBIR grant writing skill set. That is easier said than done! Hopefully throughout this article you can pick up tricks on how to structure your application to set it up for success.

Another prerequisite you will need before you begin writing is a strong value proposition. A value proposition is the impact of the innovation you are proposing. You also will want to touch on why it is valuable to a specific population group. A value proposition can take many forms, but you should have a good idea of your value proposition content before you start writing your SBIR grant application.

🔬Read more about: How Incubators Can Improve Your SBIR/STTR Grant Application

planning a project stock photo

First Steps

Before you begin to write your SBIR application, you will need to plan out your entire project. Planning out your project, including your commercialization plan, will allow you to articulate your proposal better.

You also will want to become an ‘unofficial expert’ in your particular topic area. Reviewers can tell when an application's writer knows the topic area well (or not). Being able to articulate complex concepts and account for possible errors is important to reviewers; it shows that you have done extensive research on and are confident about your proposal.

When writing your application, you will need to justify and deliver on every assertion. Each claim you make needs evidence, especially the value proposition. This evidence will most likely include key literature citations, as you will need to prove the market need of your innovation.

Beginning to Write

When you start writing your application, you should consider the story you want to tell. While it may sound childish, the reviewers will want to see a beginning, middle, and end for your innovation.

The ‘beginning’ part of your story is arguably the most important part. This is your Summary and Specific Aims sections. These will give the reader a gut reaction about your application. You want to make sure that it is good!

While writing, you will want to use ‘layperson's terms’. Layperson’s terms is language that an average citizen could understand, especially one who is not particularly well versed in your chosen field. This is mainly because reviewers come from any number of professions. Making sure that everyone can understand your writing will make their job a lot easier! Many reviewers recommend writing at a 10th grade reading level. This may seem rudimentary, but it will allow the reviewer to read your application with ease. They will be less focused on the language used, and more focused on the actual innovation proposed.

Application Structure

Below is the basic application structure for an SBIR grant. Remember that the Summary and Specific Aims portions are what will first catch your reader’s eye. 

  • Summary
  • Specific Aims
  • Research Strategy:
    • Significance (and background)
    • Innovation
    • Preliminary Studies (optional)
    • Approach

Project Summary Section

The official NIH guidance for the Project Summary describes it as “a succinct and accurate description of the proposed work and should be able to stand on its own.” 

The project summary should be a microcosm of the entire application. It includes the significance of the project, the market’s unmet need, your core value proposition, the innovation itself, and a small bit of your approach. All of this needs to be completed in around 30 lines! Because it is so short, the Summary needs to be crafted very concisely, and a great deal of thought should be put into it.

Specific Aims Section

The NIH guidelines describe the Specific Aims sections as “the concise goals of the proposed research, the summarized expected outcomes, and the impact that the results will have on the research field(s) involved.”

The actual structure of the page is up to the writer, but the aims and objectives need to be very clear. Oftentimes, one project will have multiple aims and fields applicable, and each needs to be incorporated into the page.

If you are applying for a Phase I application, you should include possible Phase II aims in your application’s Specific Aims page. This allows you to tell the whole story of your innovation, and demonstrates that you are looking beyond initial Phase I funding. This is not in the instructions, but it is expected by many reviewers. A transition between the two Phase’s aims should be an “if, then” statement. For example: “If Phase I is successful, then the Phase II aims will be…”

The aims (for both Phase I and Phase II applications) need to be very specific. They should not only describe the procedure and what might happen. There should be clear criteria for success or failure of your clinical results. If you are applying for a Phase II SBIR, you may want to consider getting an advisory committee to review your Phase I findings. An advisory committee is a team of qualified experts in the field that are able to review and analyze your team’s findings. This will allow you to strengthen your application by removing your own bias.

Research Strategy - Significance

The NIH guidance for the Significance portion of an SBIR grant is as follows:

“Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress that the proposed project addresses.

Describe the strengths and weaknesses in the rigor of the prior research both published and unpublished that serves as the key support for the proposed project.

Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields.”

A good way to tackle the significance section is to have experts in the field make your points for you. This could come in the form of a quote or any other evidence that links the expert to your idea (and why the idea is needed). This serves to point out the value of your proposal, and adds credibility to your application’s claim that the technology is needed in the market.

🔬Learn more: 9 Strategies for Winning Grants at the NIH and Beyond

Research Strategy - Innovation

Innovation aligns closely with the idea of alignment of division priorities. For example, even if your idea is amazing and novel, the NIH (or other agency) might not approve your application because it does not fit with their priorities. For this reason, you want to always make sure that your innovation fits with the type of innovation the solicitation is looking for.

Innovation can mean many things, but it usually means that the product or idea is new or a variation on existing technology. If it is a variation, then it needs to have a novel aspect. Reviewers can see too little innovation as not significant and too much innovation can be seen as risky. As the NIH is seen as a risk aversion institution, you will need to find a balance between too little and too much.

Many reviewers use the phrase “only incremental” as rationale to dismiss various applications. This means the reviewer thinks that the innovation in the application is only a small increment above the current innovation of the time period. Avoid this by proving your proposal is novel and separate from existing technology.

Preliminary Studies

Preliminary studies and their corresponding data can be very helpful when completing an SBIR grant application. NIH guidance dictates preliminary studies “can help to establish the likelihood of success of the proposed project.” The NIH also recommends that early stage investigators should include preliminary data. This is because the NIH uses extra-scrutiny on early stage investigators. Preliminary data can add to the NIH’s confidence in investigators, and prove PI's are knowledgeable on their project's material.

The same idea that is used in innovation strategies can be applied to preliminary data, in that too much or too little can be a bad thing. Too much data suggests that the project has already been completed and does not need SBIR funding. Too little data suggests that the project is not feasible or the reviewers require more convincing. Preliminary studies can increase your probability of being funded, so if you have them, use them!

Creative team putting their hands together in circle

Strength of the Team

In general, the team proposed on an SBIR application needs to impress the reviewers. But, as there are exceptions to every rule, there are exceptions to this one. “Window dressing” should be avoided. Window dressing is the practice of including big names on a project that really don’t contribute to the application at all. You may think their names will impress reviewers, but if they are not getting their hands dirty and actually contributing, these big names can do more harm than good. Besides window dressers, impressive names in the field that actually do work on the project can be beneficial to your application.

Your application might contain consultants or co-investigators, which is allowed as long as they provide substantive and project-relevant expertise to your application. Co-investigators and consultants also require NIH formatted Biosketches (which are similar to CVs). If you can not produce these, you might fare better only including full-time staff. 

Budgets

Creating a proposed budget for an SBIR grant can be very tricky. On one hand, you might think you want padding implemented in the budget in case something goes wrong. On the other hand, you do not want to overstate your budget in order to remain a reasonable candidate.

Keep in mind: in general, indirect costs can not exceed 40% of the total budget for the project. A contractor is a great example of an indirect cost, as opposed to the work being done by the small business itself. 

Typically 60%-70% of the budget will go toward personnel; reviewers want to make sure they are doing the work. Spending large amounts of money on machines or lab space is often not efficient for a budget.

A great way to maintain your budget is to use an Excel model. This allows for constant modifications, as you will most likely be moving things around. The main thing to keep in mind is justification. If you believe something is abnormal or can appear abnormal on your budget, you should explain why it is necessary to the reviewers.

Budget Waivers

Some projects will need to have budgets over the typically allocated amount. In this case, a budget waiver needs to be approved by the reviewers. Topics that can allow for budget waivers are listed by the NIH (and updated frequently). If you are not sure whether your project would qualify for a waiver, you should contact your NIH program officer. It is always better to ask first, than to be rejected simply because you were over-budget!

SBIR Fee

An SBIR fee is similar to a profit. A small business can request a fixed fee of 7% of the total project cost for both Phase I and Phase II awards. This fee is funding beyond your award and specified budget, so you are able to spend it however you wish. The fee, according to the NIH, is “intended to be a reasonable profit factor.” If you have a very large budget, you may want to avoid asking for this fee because of the additional financial burden on the NIH or other institution.

Letters of Support 

Letters of Support are considered a “de facto requirement.” Letters can serve to strengthen your application in many ways, usually by proving that your invention is needed and novel in the current marketplace. It often adds authenticity and validity to your project, and can even deflect criticism from the reviewers. That being said, obtaining substantive Letters of Support can be a long and taxing process. It may take months to finally obtain one from a trusted and respected colleague in the field.

Here are some examples of typical phases that can be used in Letters of Support:

  • “This is a ground breaking project”
  • “If developed, we intend to work with the small business…”
  • “I would be pleased to participate in…”

red flag stock photo

Things to Avoid:

These items are red flags to SBIR reviewers, so you should try to leave these out of your application. Many times, these mistakes can be avoided if you ask for the opinions of others in your field.

  • Weak value proposition
  • Overstated claims of significance
  • Perceived lack of innovation
  • Unclear/undisciplined Approach section
  • Lack of preliminary data

Final Thoughts

Writing an application for a SBIR grant is a very hands on and difficult process. You not only need to be knowledgeable, but also have a great idea, and be original (all of which are easier said than done). Starting early and devoting a considerable amount of time to your application will make you better off than waiting until the last minute, so as soon as you see an NIH solicitation, you should begin strategizing!

🔬Learn about: Do's & Don'ts of the SBIR Grant Application Process


Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are the two elements of a winning SBIR application?
A: The first is the value proposition, and the second is the skill of the writer.

Q: Is the NSF application process different?
A: Yes, this article mainly covers the NIH SBIR process. The NSF tends to focus more on basic research and business proposals. 

Q: How can I select an advisor to help me with my application?
A: The best person to have helping you with your application is someone who has been an SBIR reviewer for a long time. Past/current reviewers are able to easily spot mistakes and help you develop your application.

Q: How long does an SBIR application take to write?
A: An SBIR application will most likely take you around 300 hours to write. While this number may seem daunting, a lot of it is fine tuning and trying to find the best sources for your application. 

Q: Who is the competition when applying for SBIR awards?

A: Primarily, your competition will be very experienced, multiple award winners. So, if it is your first time you will need to make sure you are competing at their level. 

Q: Should I write an SBIR by myself or do I need to consult with others?

A: Writing NIH applications for the first time by yourself is a very daunting task. Oftentimes inexperienced writers are not successful in receiving grants. That being said, consulting professionals, like those at Science Docs, will greatly increase your chances of being funded. 


This content comes from two University Lab Partners webinars hosted in partnership with ScienceDocs, presented by Dr. Jim O’Halloran. Check out Part 1 here and Part 2 here

Dr. O’Halloran has more than 17 years of experience with the SBIR program and has received funding from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute on Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS). He has served as principal investigator on more than 20 grants, totaling more than $10M. He has also served as a selected reviewer for these same agencies for over a decade.

Be sure to subscribe to the ULP Youtube Channel to never miss another webinar, and connect with us on LinkedIn to stay in the loop!

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