Know Before You Apply: SBIR / STTR Program

08/01/23 | 6 MIN READ

This article will give a general overview of the SBIR funding program, its advantages, its structure, and what to know before you apply.

Advantages of SBIR Funding

There are several advantages to gaining an SBIR grant. First, compared to other funding mechanisms such as Venture Capital firms (VCs), SBIR applicants have a higher probability of receiving an award as long as it is a strong idea with good due diligence. Additionally, SBIR awards are grants that require no debt or dilution, which is common with many other funding mechanisms. SBIR awardees are also not required to give up any of their intellectual property (IP) when they receive an award.

An SBIR award can also help throughout your company's lifecycle. VC firms or industry partners often regard companies that have received an SBIR grant higher, because the NIH (or other agency) has already vetted the science for them at least once. 

Understanding the Structure of the Program

The first thing your company must decide is whether to apply for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant. Both are similar grants, however there are some key differences between the two:


  • Principal investigator (PI) must be employed at the small business
  • Only 33% of the research effort can be subcontracted in Phase I (50% in Phase II)
  • Duration is 6 months (Phase I)


  • Requires a partnership with a non-profit research institution
  • Focuses on the transfer of technology from the institution to the small business
  • Up to 60% of the research effort can be subcontracted
  • Duration is 12 months (Phase I)

After you have decided which type of grant is best for your company, you should take a look at the NIH’s (or other agency’s) general omnibus solicitation page. Click here to see the NIH omnibus solicitation page.

The specific type of solicitation will depend on whether or not you have a clinical trial. Note that budget caps from the solicitation can be waived with prior approval if your research is in a current topic of interest. After a solicitation has been selected, you have two options for your application: Phase I or Phase II. 

doctor with a patient family at bright modern office in hospital

A Phase I grant is set up in order to establish the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential of research ideas. Contracts of up to $243,500 are awarded for approximately 6 months.

A Phase II grant is typically awarded after a company has completed a Phase I grant. The purpose of a Phase II grant is to continue research and development, and aim toward IND-enabling studies. IND-enabling studies are conducted to evaluate the potential toxicity risks prior to human studies and to estimate starting doses for clinical trials. Funding for Phase II is based on the performance in Phase I and the overall commercial potential for both the project and the small business as a whole. Awards can range up to $1.8 million but generally do not exceed $1 million over a 2 year period. 

A fast-track mechanism is available as well, but is generally not recommended to most small businesses. The fast-track mechanism combines Phase I and Phase II, making the time schedule much faster. However, these grants are scrutinized more by review boards and are generally harder to receive funding for.

Phase III is the commercialization phase. This is generally not supported by the NIH, and the small business must find funding from the private sector or non-SBIR federal agency funding. 

🔬Read more: Introduction to the SBIR Program


Planning Your Proposal

Receiving a SBIR grant is not just about writing the grant proposal. The most important things to have beforehand are your ideas and your strategy.

Before seeking NIH funding, it's best to create an initial commercialization plan, and what amount of funding would be needed. This involves planning, consulting with experts, and setting both short and long term goals. This is also a good time to ensure that you and your company are eligible for both SBIR grants in general and the specific type of funding you think fits with your commercialization plan. 

When writing your SBIR proposal, the most important thing is to take advantage of the resources you are given. This includes program officers, NIH webinars, NIH websites, and specific agency websites. People are often reluctant to call program officers, but they are there to guide you and give you help in order to have a better chance at securing funding. After you have spoken with the program officer, make sure you read the omnibus solicitation multiple times through. There is  important information in the solicitation that you need in order to write a strong proposal.

Another great resource is the NIAID website, which contains tips for writing different sections, as well as samples for you to read. University Lab Partners also has some great resources for small businesses looking for tips on how to write an SBIR or STTR grant. 

🔬Learn more: What are SBIR/STTR Grants?


Avoid Common Mistakes

Writing and submitting an SBIR application is no easy feat, and it is especially hard to submit a competitive application as a new business. That being said, there are some common mistakes that you may be able to avoid. 

businessman hand draws business success chart concept on virtual screen

First, make sure you understand the difference between an SBIR grant and a typical academic grant. In academic grants, hypothesis testing can be the core rationale, yet this is not the case for SBIRs. Instead of writing the grant with hypothesis driven data gathering, you should write an SBIR application more focused on product development with a clear commercial goal. You should also make sure you understand the Phase I and Phase II structure, as well as their respective funding levels, specifically the average awards and average durations. 

Another mistake businesses make is choosing a PI that is new and inexperienced. The SBIR review board sees new PIs as a significant disadvantage to applicants. A way to get around this if you are new is to assemble a team that compliments you and your company the best. This includes creating an advisory board that can not only help you with the science, but also have experience in taking a product to market in some form. 


Questions to Ask Before You Apply

There are several things you need to complete before you submit, or even start to write, your NIH application. Here is a list of questions you can ask yourself before you get started:

  1. Do you have all NIH and registrations set up correctly? Click here to learn more about registrations
  2. What is your value proposition?
  3. Is your concept innovative?
  4. Are you addressing an unmet clinical need?
  5. Is there a market for your product?
  6. Do you have the resources to implement this?
  7. Is your plan compatible with the Phase I and Phase II structure?
  8. What is the likelihood of success of both the work proposed in the grant and the technology?
  9. What is your company's survival and growth strategy outside of SBIR funding?

Some of these questions will be easier to answer than others. In general it is best to have a tight grasp on their answers before you begin to write your application.

🔬Learn more: How to Create a Value Proposition to Attract Investors


Deciding on Application Specifics

Now that you are ready to apply, there is still more to do before you can start writing. First you need to decide where to target your application. This is another opportunity to go back to the omnibus solicitation, read it again, and try to draw a conclusion on where your idea best fits.

Then you need to decide which division of the agency you want to apply to. For example, the National Institutes on Aging (NIA), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) are all divisions of the NIH your application could be targeted toward. Make sure you read the program priorities, solicitations, and strategic plans for each in order to help you determine the best fit. 

If you think your idea fits in with two or three different opportunities, call the different program officers and discuss your situation. They might have some insight on whether or not they feel your idea is better suited for their program or another. 

Subscribing to an email list of application updates can help take some of the stress out of searching for an opportunity. Check for ones that send out weekly NIH funding opportunities and notices. Click here to learn more

Once you have decided which division to apply to, you want to look at the Study Sections. Study Sections are the different groups that review applications for SBIR and STTR grants. Click here to see the different Sections.

When you are ready to submit your grant there are two things you can do to increase your chances of success:

  1. Fill out the assignment request form correctly
  2. Modify keywords in your title, Specific Aims page, and Project Summary to help the Assisted Referral Tool (ART) assign your application correctly

Success Rates and Expectations

When applying for SBIR or STTR grants, it is important to manage expectations. Overall, Phase I grants have around a 20% success rate, while Phase II has around a 40% success rate. This means you need to be prepared for multiple cycles of grant writing, both successful and unsuccessful. Securing other funding during this time might be necessary in order to meet commercialization goals. 



The SBIR and STTR grant program is a great way to get your small business non-dilutive funding. Receiving an SBIR grant elevates your business, especially to other investors down the line. While the process is extremely competitive, there are various things you can do before you even start writing that will help your application succeed. 

Other Helpful Articles

This content comes from a webinar, Intro to the SBIR Program with speaker Laura Cobb, Senior Grant Consultant at ScienceDocs.

📽️ Watch the full webinar here.

Laura Cobb is an experienced PhD-trained Medical Writer with a demonstrated history of success in the Scientific and Medical Writing and Communications industry. Specialities include grant, manuscript, and publications writing.

Presented in partnership with ScienceDocs. ScienceDocs is a U.S. based, comprehensive scientific and medical research support provider that has been leading the industry since 2004.  


The Ultimate Guide to Wet Lab Incubators

Download The Ultimate Guide to Wet Lab Incubators in Southern California, a handbook to assist life science start-ups through the entire decision-making process to find wet lab space.

Download Now

Fill out the form below to download the Ultimate Guide

Apply for residency today

Do you have a great company in the bioscience or medtech industry? Do you need wet-lab and/or fabrication space to develop and test your product?