What makes a “great team” in SBIR?

  • December 1, 2022

“The cost of getting an early hire wrong is really high.” Sam Altman on Startup Teams, Co-Founding and Hiring. How does this relate to your SBIR application?

When looking at the merit review criteria for SBIR, you will notice the importance reviewers place on the team section. You may be wondering what makes a good team. As reviewers’ perceptions can be highly subjective (we often see feedback where one reviewer has no complaints and another reviewer has plenty) how can you select a team that will score favorably with most reviewers? What about differences in what makes a “good” team within different agencies that offer SBIR? Below are a few universal tips that can help with building a sound team for SBIR proposals

The Principal Investigator (PI)

Whoever sits as PI needs to have proven domain expertise and past deliverables that make this evident. Most companies assume the right person to sit as PI is always the founder, but if the founder is new to the industry and does not have relevant experience or has no experience in the realm of research and development in general, they may not be the best fit for PI. If your founder absolutely insists on being named PI and you question if their expertise is substantial enough, it is imperative that you bolster their credentials by adding strategic industry advisors to help eliminate any knowledge gaps. You should directly include language in the team section of the proposal on how subject matter experts will directly address a real or perceived gap in industry expertise.

Senior personnel

In SBIR, Senior Personnel are defined as “individuals with critical expertise who will be working on the project and are employed at the proposing company or at a subaward institution” by NSF and “all individuals who contribute in a substantive, meaningful way to the scientific development or execution of the project, whether or not salaries are requested” by NIH. As you can see, there are slightly different definitions of Senior or Key personnel among different agencies. As a general rule, we like to say if they have administrative oversight over the project, they are probably Senior Personnel. Senior personnel must have demonstrable industry expertise, just like the PI. For each Senior Personnel, it must be made clear:

  • Their role in the project
  • Day to day responsibilities
  • Their experience and expertise
  • WHY they are the best person to hold this role within the project


In every SBIR proposal, applicants must disclose the total person-hours or effort of each Senior Personnel as well as any current or pending federal support they have from other grants. If you intend to hire personnel that has current and pending support in other funding lines or a full or part-time job elsewhere make sure they have the capacity to fulfill the time and effort requirements needed of them. For those with current and pending support on the books, this means their total effort across all research grants must not exceed 100%. Remember that SBIR has a “typical workweek” approach to what a workday entails, not a founder’s approach. They define a workday as eight hours and a workweek as 40.

Some things to avoid

  • Do not add team members simply because you know them. Your family, friends, and current coworkers are not a good fit for your team based solely on your relationship outside of work. If they have the proper credentials to fulfill the role, by all means, add them. Otherwise, use a hiring service, job posting board, or professional references to find someone with the right experience.
  • Do not list vague, fluffy nonsense instead of real achievements (e.g., “hard worker”, “team player”, “calm under pressure”). This is an SBIR proposal, not your online dating profile – no one is choosing you for your personal attributes.
  • List real deliverables (e.g., “three patents in the US”, “a founding team member on project X”, “awarded two federal research grants in 2017”).
  • Do not leave key roles “TBD”. Name a person. You can always amend that employee profile after obtaining the award. Reviewers do not want to see a proposal with a poorly thought out team as a team’s dynamic and expertise can make or break the success of a research project.

For more insight into what makes a favorably reviewed SBIR team, schedule a call with us. We would be happy to go over some pointers with you or even suggest possible avenues/references to find the team members you need.

We work with high-growth startups and organizations that support the startup and innovation ecosystem. We build highly specific non-dilutive funding menus, provide proposal preparation services, and measure outcomes of funding through evaluation. Schedule a consult call with us HERE.