Commercialization Planning for SBIR/STTR Stage Companies

  • May 20, 2021

A very informative webinar was presented by Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. College of Medicine November 12th, 2020. The topic of discussion was commercialization planning for Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) stage companies. The presentation reminded potential applicants of many key points to consider regarding commercialization when applying to the program. From experience in preparing proposals for clients, there seem to be several common pitfalls small businesses encounter when crafting their commercialization section. Hopefully, you had a chance to attend the webinar, but for those who missed it, here is the abridged version.

Intelligence does not equal skill specificity

This is something we remind clients of on a daily basis. Each employee within a business has a unique role and corresponding expertise. No one is an expert in absolutely everything. It is for this reason that we are always apprehensive when engineers and PIs want to act as the business and marketing experts in a project instead of outsourcing this to a subject matter expert on their team or as a consultant. Research and commercialization are two very different activities. It is to a company’s benefit to hiring someone to the team with expertise in developing and successfully marketing a product. This expert should ideally be instrumental in writing the commercialization section of the proposal as well.

SBIR-the “b” stands for “business”

Never forget-the point of SBIR is to commercialize and market a product, furthering knowledge, and changing the world are added benefits. In cases of funding, the federal government should be viewed as an investor. Just like any VC or Angel investor you may have pitched to in the past, their motivation in funding your research is that they want ROI. Do not neglect the commercialization section or view it as secondary or unimportant. Reviewers are paying close attention to this section and it absolutely affects your overall score.

Letters of Support

An important part of commercialization is creating Letters of Support. It is recommended that you draft a template of your letter and send it to the organizations you plan to secure support from. Then the busy signatory can just fill in the blanks and send it back. What goes in a letter of support?

Paragraph 1: Introduce the expert or organization that is offering support. What is the history and credentials of that entity? Why is their confidence in your product important?

Paragraph 2: What is the problem? Products are designed to meet needs. What unmet need exists and from their unique perspective given industry and experience, how does this problem affect the expert or their field

Paragraph 3: How this product offers a solution to the problem and why the expert or organization has an interest in purchasing the solution. Also, include how many units they anticipate purchasing immediately and in the future.

Some really good general advice about commercialization

  • The presentation offered some useful advice including the importance of engaging in customer discovery BEFORE product development. The saying “if you build it they will come” does not apply here, or at least it should not. A savvy commercialization procedure learns what potential buyers want and tailors their product to this want/need. Learn the market before you finalize your build plan.
  • Memorize your elevator pitch
  • Use the same terms your customers and potential investors use. Learn market terms and mirror their vernacular. It will enhance your credibility and make communications more effective.
  • ALWAYS talk about market availability in terms of units, not dollars. Investors do not care how much you are selling your product for, they care about how many units you can sell.
  • Do;t know where to start your market research? Try these free, public, and readily available sources: Stock reports, annual reports, market reports, similar companies’ history/sales/market trends, and investor publications.
  • Know the difference between end-users and customers, they are rarely the same.
  • Talk about your anticipated hurdles and barriers (technological, capital, etc.) and how you plan to mitigate them.
  • It is OK to say you are pre-revenue, bootstrapped, and new to the market. However, back it up with your knowledge and resources and demonstrate you still understand the commercialization process.
  • In revenue projections, do not forget to incorporate the additional cost of materials and employees as the company grows.

Fun Fact: The entire SBIR program that encompasses 11 federal agencies began as a National Science Foundation (NSF) pilot project in the 1980s to commercialize non-government research projects. It was so successful a federal program was created and remains to this day.

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