Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Dan Callahan

This time, we’re going to look at Part 2 of the SBIR approach to securing revenue for your innovation.   I get the impression there is a long list of folks who know how to go through the motions and submit a proposal, and a much shorter list of folks who know all that… and how to win.

Recall that our last blog entry was more of an introduction to the program and that the DoD is the point of entry into the IC for entrepreneurial innovation.  Understand that the pressure is on for our troops to win in Afghanistan.  The sooner we get the warfighter the innovation that he/she needs, the sooner they get home (and safely).  This pressure begins at the Pentagon and flows downward.  If you had a notion of approaching the Intelligence Advanced Projects Research Agency (IARPA) this may take more time and money than you have available, as an entrepreneur.  SBIR is a smaller speed bump and is focused on nearer term results, vice basic research.  It may be worth a look if you have some sort of innovation and can articulate its value to the warfighter.

Note: . This material is from the SBIR Coach® Fred Patterson (see  I am thrilled guys like Fred exist which allows me to stay an expert in my area and not feel I need to become an expert in his.

What advice would you give to an emerging technology innovator, who is considering SBIR (i.e., is there top level advice on how to win an SBIR award, or keys to winning?)

There are several keys to winning SBIR awards. 

Address the agency’s need, not yours

First and foremost, be sure you are addressing an agency priority or need.  Some of the agencies provide you with a statement of the problem.  Others only provide areas of interest and expect you to identify a significant problem worth solving.  In either case, your proposed solution to the problem must address THEIR needs not YOUR desires.  They will fund what they need done, not your pet project!

Pay attention to the review criteria

Every agency will tell you the review criteria for selecting winning proposals.  Pay attention to these, and write your proposal accordingly.  Don’t make the reviewer search for how you address these criteria.  Use paragraph titles and bolded or italicized sentences to highlight the important points.  But don’t overdo it!  That’s distracting.

Tell a good story

The submission is not about filling out forms (although there are a few of those).  A successful proposal tells a story -- a story of why your solution deserves funding.  Like with all stories, if you can’t hold the reviewer’s attention, it will be set aside and won’t get read to the end.  And that’s a kiss of death for being selected for funding.  The trick is doing this within the format and outline specified by the agency.  And, of course, they’re all different!

Don’t be boring

Getting the reviewer to read to the end is more than just the story.  It’s how you tell it too. 

Use clear, easy to read language – an 11th grade level is appropriate.  (Don’t worry, you won’t insult anyone!)  Use short paragraphs (10 lines max – turn off the “tapes” from your high school grammar teacher!).  Break up compound sentences.  Always identify acronyms at first usage.  Avoid hyperbole.

Break up the tedium of the text using figures, pictures, and charts.  Bullet charts of key points are always a good idea.

And get an outside opinion on whether your message is coming through loud and clear.  No one can objectively edit their own writing.

Follow instructions

Every agency has administrative criteria for you to follow.  If you don’t pay attention to these details your proposal may be tossed out without ever being read.  (One major agency official recently told me that approximately 20% of the proposals they receive are tossed for one reason or another and never reviewed!)

Seek feedback and be patient

SBIR is not quick funding.   It takes a while to get through the process. 

And, with only 10% of the proposals selected for funding, you likely will fail on your first attempt.  Be sure to get feedback on why you were turned down.  Every agency will provide this, but you may have to ask for the debriefing.

A few agencies allow you to re-submit after fixing deficiencies.  Most do not, but many do recycle topics in their next solicitation, and you can fix up a proposal and send it through again.

Persistence does pay off.  As one gains experience with the dynamic of the process, the win rate does go up.

Get help

This is a complex process with many potential traps and pitfalls.  To increase your likelihood of putting together a good story that addresses a clear agency need, not missing any administrative tricks or traps, and crafting a truly competitive proposal, enlist the help of an experienced SBIR coach.  Some economic development arms of States and municipalities actually provide grant funding (known as Phase Zero) to support this.  Do some poking around on the Web and see what you can turn up to give yourself a competitive advantage.