How to Write a Great National Science Foundation Project Pitch

09/08/21 | 5 MIN READ Revised 09/23/21

NSF Project Pitches allow companies to “pre-apply” for an SBIR/STTR award from the NSF.

The National Science Foundation

The NSF is a granting agency, specifically for SBIR and STTR grants. They value investigator initiated projects, as opposed to projects initiated by themselves. Their grants awards are also decided on by a group of peer reviewers, who convene each year to review applications.

Each agency focuses on a different aspect of small businesses that they value. The NSF puts a strong emphasis on commercial potential and cutting-edge, high impact research.

The NSF also has a unique application process, in which small businesses need to be invited to apply. They can then apply in certain windows. This comes in contrast to the NIH’s specific due dates. The NSF also has a smaller budget in comparison to the NIH for SBIR and STTR awards. Here is the breakdown:

  • Phase I: 6-12 months, $256,000
  • Phase II: 24 months, $1,000,000
  • Phase IIB (Third Party investment + NSF match): up to $500,000

The NSF, unlike the NIH, does not have a fast track (straight to Phase II) option. This means that only NSF Phase I awardees are able to apply for Phase II funding.

🔬Learn more: What are SBIR/STTR Grants?

Is Your Company Eligible?

The first thing to consider when you attempt to submit an NSF project pitch is whether you are eligible. Each company must comply with the SBIR/STTR Policy Directives and the Code of Federal Regulations. Here are a few of the main criteria:

  • Company is a small business (fewer than 500 employees, including affiliates)
  • At least 50% of the company’s equity is owned by US citizens or permanent residents, and all funded work needs to take place in the United States
  • The Principal Investigator (PI) must be legally employed at least 20 hours/week by the company
  • The PI needs to commit at least 1 month (173 hours) of effort for each 6 months of the project’s duration

Check out the full document of eligibility criteria here

🔬Related: 10 Tips for a Competitive SBIR or STTR Proposal

Company stock photo project

The Project Pitch

The NSF requires a project pitch from all potential applicants for their funding opportunities. A project pitch is a 3 page proposal that summarizes the company’s ideas and plan for each funding opportunity.

If your project pitch is a good fit for the program, you will receive an official invitation from the NSF to submit a full proposal. If it is not a good fit, you will be told why your project idea would not work with the program. You will hear back from the NSF within 3 weeks of submitting your pitch. Additional guidance can be received from NSF Program Officers on specific details.

Project Pitch Limitations

A project pitch can be submitted at any time. With that being said, there are some limitations on how many project pitches can be submitted in a given time. Each small business can only submit:

  • One project pitch at a time
  • Up to two unique pitches per submission window

Additionally, small businesses must wait for the response of a pending project pitch before submitting a new one. 

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

Elements of the Project Pitch

Along with your company’s information, you will need 4 key elements to create a project pitch:

  • Technology innovation
  • Technical objectives and challenges
  • Market opportunity
  • Company and team

Each of these sections are outlined in greater detail below.

technology innovation stock photo

The Technology Innovation

The Technology Innovation section has a limit of 500 words. Within that limit, the first thing to describe is what is new, innovative, and unproven about the potential product. You will also want to discuss the societal and commercial significance of the problem at hand. With that, you should touch upon why your innovation would solve that problem. You should also highlight the advantages of your solution over what is currently available for the same problem.

It is normally a challenge for small business owners to fit their technology innovations section into 500 words. This makes it important to be concise yet detailed in giving answers. Companies should also avoid bullet points or large graphics in order to use the maximum amount of room on the page. It is recommended to write the pitch on a separate Word Document before loading them into the online submission page. This way you can determine your exact word count and check for any spelling or grammar errors in the document.

The Technical Objectives and Challenges

This section is similar to the Specific Aims page of the final proposal. The Technical Objectives and Challenges section aims to describe the R&D or technical work that the company would be doing in a Phase I NSF project. The company should discuss how and why the proposed R&D work would help prove that the product is technically feasible.

The company should also discuss how this work could contribute to making a finalized and commercial ready product. This section should convey that the proposed work meets the definition of Research and Development, as opposed to solely engineering or product development.

The Technical Objectives and Challenges section is also limited to 500 words. 

The Market Opportunities Section

The Market Opportunities Section is designed for the company to convey their potential customer profile. A company should ask these questions in order to best understand their customer profile:

  • Who are the customers?
  • How do your customers buy the product?

Customers can be described as a target population, a target organization, or a particular demographic. Customers may buy the company’s product through 2 main channels: direct or indirect. Direct channels allow the customer to buy the goods directly from the manufacturer. Indirect channels move the product through other distribution channels to get to the customer.

The market opportunity section should include some data points so the reader can best visualize the points made. The best data points to provide are the market size, the projected growth rate, and information on possible market segmentations. Information on market segmentation and other metrics can be found online from reputable sources. 

This section has a word limit of 250 words. 

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

Syntr Health Move In

The Company and Team

The people within your company will ultimately determine the success or failure of a certain project. That is why the company section, although last, is very important. The section should describe the background and current status of the small business team, especially those who will be involved in the technical portion of this research. You should also include basic information, like the organizational structure and how many employees are currently working there. Finally, the Company and Team section should provide support as to why the specific team members chosen are the best fit for this project. The principal investigator should be the main highlight of the team, as they are the main person responsible for the project. This to include can be:

  • Entrepreneurial experience
  • Business advisors
  • Educational or professional background in the field
  • Relevant past work
  • Potential consultants working on the project

The Company and Team section has a word limit of 250 words as well.

General Tips

Here are a few general tips for writing an NSF Project Pitch.

  • Make sure to use up all of the allotted word count
  • First write your pitch on a separate document, and then Copy & Paste to the submission page
  • Use action verbs like: examine, evaluate, identify, compare, assess, determine
  • Avoid words like: explore, describe, associate, correlate
  • Run your pitch with a colleague that has experience with NSF pitches
  • Visit the NSF Apply Page for more information

How to Submit

There are 3 main parts of submitting an NSF Project Pitch.

  1. Visit the online form (linked here) to submit your Project Pitch

  2. Provide basic company information and indicate your Technology Topic Area

  3. After submission, you will receive an email confirmation with your assigned submission number.

After Submission

After you submit your pitch, within 3 weeks, NSF will reach out with their decision via email. The 3 options are Yes, No, and Maybe.

If you are approved (Yes) you have 1 year to submit a full application. Be sure to save your approval email, as it is needed later in the process.

If you receive a “No” from the NSF, your project was not deemed a good fit for the agency’s needs. After that news, companies may want to return to the drawing board to rewrite their pitch, or explore other options.

The third option, “Maybe”, could mean that the NSF needs more information from your company before they can make a final decision. The Program Director (PD) will reach out to ask about the additional information needed. If this occurs, be sure to carefully address the PD’s questions in your response.


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