Addressing the Technical Risks question

  • December 7, 2020

In day-to-day life, risks are usually viewed as a negative, something to be avoided. But for those who apply for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding, risk is required as a prerequisite for achieving funding. There is a specific section entitled “technical risk,” in which companies must describe what makes their idea unproven and innovative. Nonetheless, projects applying for funding must fully elucidate the probability and sound scientific background of their idea in their proposals. This leaves many companies wondering, “So if risk is a good thing, then why did I have to include all these citations supporting my hypothesis?!?!” This section of the SBIR proposal is especially difficult for companies to grasp, and many companies struggle to complete this section of their proposals, and understandably so. We live in a world where merit is judged by repeatable results and products that rely on proven practices. It can be hard to get out of this modality and think of risk as a positive.

Risky = Good?

SBIR funders, risk really is positive, because these funders are looking for innovative, disruptive ideas that will change the industry standard within their field. By asking companies to explain why their idea is a high risk, they are essentially asking, “What is it about this project that differentiates it from a simple task of engineering”?

SBIR is all about innovation, and if they are going to fund a company, they need assurance that the company’s ideas are novel and groundbreaking. This does not mean they want to find a long-shot idea. It is still critical to use prior research and literature to back up any claims that what you are proposing to do is possible. However, it is also integral to demonstrate that what you plan to do has not been done before, at least not in the exact way you are proposing to do it.

How to write the Technical Risk Section

This can cause a lot of confusion and anxiety. One way we like to look at this question that can make it less intimidating is to think of it, not in terms of why this idea is risky, but what makes this idea special. What differentiates this idea from all the other ideas and products in the field? If you only had 5 minutes to explain to a stranger why your company’s idea matters and why it is better than the competitor’s, what would you say? That is what belongs in the technical risks section. This section is also a great place to show you understand the limitations of what you are proposing to do and the steps that must be taken to mitigate some of these risks, or how you plan to pivot if these risks prove detrimental to project progress. This understanding of limitations and risks will show the reviewers that you have a deep scientific understanding of the project and a realistic outlook regarding what can be accomplished in the given time frame.

The technical risk section is one of the more difficult sections of an SBIR proposal to write, but it is integral for determining which proposals are truly innovative and which are simple tasks of engineering. For companies who wish to obtain funding but do not have an innovative product or service, consider federal contracts, which pay companies for providing goods and services they already produce to the federal government.

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