How many proposals get funded per agency or organization? Well, that depends on the agency or organization. Typically, foundation grants are smaller both in value and quantity, as private foundations often have a smaller purse to dispense funds than the federal government. The federal government’s grants tend to be larger and more numerous, but the odds of winning one are still much smaller than small businesses would care for. In fact, the average success rate for SBIR overall is only 13%. Below see the table for the success rate of each of the 11 agencies offering Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants.
|Department of Transportation (DOT)||7%|
|Department of Homeland Security (DHS)||12%|
|Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)||14%|
|Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)||8%|
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)||17%|
|National Science Foundation (NSF)||20%|
|Department of Energy (DOE)||13%|
|Department of Defense (DOD)||15%|
|Department of Commerce (DOC)||12%|
|Department of Education (ED)||9%|
|United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)||12%|
The question then becomes, if everyone meets the basic requirements, how are these small percentages of successful business going above and beyond to win the award in this competitive environment? There are several things you can do to improve your chances.
While risk is normally viewed as a bad thing, the “I” in “SBIR” stands for “innovation.” This means they are specifically looking for companies that are early stage and have a risky technical innovation to develop. This does not mean your idea should come out of left field and not be supported by copious research in similar or related fields. Demonstrating risk is a fine line to walk. Intellectual merit must be part of the presentation with theoretical support as to why and how this idea will work. However, at the same time, it must be demonstrated that while this is theoretically possible, it is as yet unproven. This is one of the trickiest elements of writing a winning SBIR proposal, but those who do it well will be rewarded.
A Reasonable and Allowable Budget
The budget is a big part of the SBIR proposal. Learn about the regulations set forth by the agency with which you are applying as well as the individual solicitation. Once you have your costs nailed down, itemize, itemize, itemize! If you need 76 q-tips to wipe down your microscope between slides, say so in your budget justification. Agencies want to ensure their money is going to research and that the small business concern has responsible and reasonable costs associated with their project.
Too often, companies get wrapped up in the excitement of their idea and forget to tell the reviewers HOW they actually plan to go about this research. It’s all well and good to have an industry-disrupting, mind-blowing, never before seen innovation. However, reviewers want to know how it will improve the industry and why it is unique. Still, they also need to know the steps that will be taken to bring it to fruition. If you are engaging in research, describe your process. How will you define success? What is your overall goal and individual objectives? What will represent your go/no go decision to take the project to Phase II? What milestones will allow you to measure progress? What data will you collect, and how will you evaluate data? Winners of awards show a detailed plan of attack for how they will perform research and development.
Follow Directions and Do Your Homework
It may sound simple, but if the solicitation says 1″ margin Arial 11 font, use a 1″ margin, Arial 11 font. Know what the requirements are for page length, content, formatting, etc. and follow it exactly. Know when the SBIR proposal is due and how to use the platform to submit the SBIR proposal. Know where attachments belong. Know character limits, writing style preferences (no first-person language, please), and the proper format for uploaded documents (usually pdf). And please, we can not stress this enough, take care of your registrations well in advance. SAM takes three weeks to finalize registration, SBA registry, grants.gov, and research.gov will all take time to process. Please make sure you have PI or AOR privileges respectively to grants.gov and research.gov, or you will not be able to open the SBIR proposal preparation workspace.
List your team with actual names of actual people who will be performing that work. If two otherwise equal SBIR proposals are in question and one list “project manager” in the personnel section of the budget and the other lists “Jane Doe,” guess which proposal is going to get a more favorable review? You can always change your staff up later, but it is to your benefit to have designated people in place with names and biosketches in your personnel and consultant seats.
While the final decision of the reviewers is out of your control and they have full authority to reject or accept SBIR proposals as they see fit with or without reason (fingers crossed your reviewers had their coffee that morning and didn’t get stuck in traffic), there are several things you can do to make your SBIR proposal stand a better chance of winning an award.
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