When we started our company in 2002, venture capital was scarce, so we sought alternative ways to finance the business. The Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program, specifically the one offered through the National Science Foundation (NSF), is high quality source of funding. I have personally worked on proposals that have won awards from the Department of Defense (DoD) and the NSF totaling over $2.1 million. I am also a business reviewer for Phase II proposals for the NSF. I have both been through the proposal process and the selection process.
The SBIR Program
The SBIR program was created in 1982 as part of the Small Business Innovation Development Act. Eleven Federal departments and agencies are required under this act to reserve a portion of their R&D funds to be awarded to small businesses each year.
To receive an award under this program, a company must be American-owned and independently operated, for-profit, and under 500 employees. Additionally, the principal researcher must be employed at least 51% of the time by the business. There is still some debate as to whether venture-backed companies qualify if the VCs own more than 50%. Speak with the program manager to determine your eligibility if you fall in this category. Each agency determines its own topics and amounts for the awards (within parameters). The websites for all the SBIR programs are listed on the DoD SBIR webpage.
The Latest NSF Solicitation
The NSF has a fairly comprehensive website that covers the submission guidelines. Your life will be easier if you review this site long before the submission deadline. The deadline for the spring 2008 round has passed, but start thinking now about your possible submissions for the fall. The solicitation for the spring has been posted and the proposal is due on June 10th at 5:00 pm. This is a hard deadline and they will give you no leeway if you miss it. Each company may submit up to four proposals in one round.
The topics for this round include Biotech and Chemical Technologies, Software and Services, and Electronics, Components, and Engineering Systems.
The Phase I will be for no more than $100,000. You are usually notified four to six months after the proposal has been submitted. If you should win this grant, you will begin the grant period in late 2008 or early 2009. You get 2/3 of the money up front and 1/3 at the end. After six months of research, should you find success, you may apply for a Phase II grant up to $500,000. Again, you may apply in either January or July following the completion and, if successful, you will receive your funds in another six months: 25% up front, 15% at the end, and 20% three times during the course of the project. A Phase II is usually 24 months. Please note, that for the first year, you are spreading a small amount of money over a pretty long period. This is useful for funding some of your development with non-dilutive funds, but not particularly useful at providing working capital.
Winning Your Phase I
- Understand the solicitation topic: they are very serious about sticking to the topics. The topics for this round are fairly broad, but if you have an advanced material that decreases the wind resistance on airplane, it doesn’t matter how fabulous it is, you will have to wait until the Advanced Materials solicitation. Call the program officer and find out if they are interested before you do all the work on the proposal.
- Have an innovative technology. They are not interesting in funding improvements. Additionally, the proposal is reviewed by someone who really understands the technology. Don’t skimp on technical details because you assume the reader can’t understand it. If the program manager doesn’t understand what you are doing, they will find someone who does. You will not be successful if they don’t have the information necessary to understand what you are attempting to do.
- Have a good commercialization plan. In Phase I, they are not expecting an extensive business plan, with a full marketing campaign defined. They are, however, going to expect you to have a good understanding of who might buy this product, why they would want to buy it, and what they might be willing to spend for it. They will also expect that the market be at least large enough to support your company as a commercial venture. And never, never say “there isn’t a market yet for my product because it’s so innovative” or “there are no competitors for my product.” When the car was invented, the market was everyone who owned a horse and wagon. Competitors were everything that could move a person from one spot to another.
- Provide letters of support. It is actually a requirement for this solicitation, but even when it is not a requirement, it’s a really good idea. Good letters of support come from representatives of companies that will be interested in buying your product. In the best case, they will say that they will buy it, if you are successful. Often the easiest thing to do is write the letter yourself and ask the representative to copy it onto his or her company letterhead and sign it. If you include multiple letters, don’t provide the same copy to every supporter – it makes you look like an idiot.
- Call the program officer well before the due date. Okay, I said this before, but it bears repeating in case you missed it. The program managers whom I have met are intelligent, dedicated people. They are very excited about these technologies and knowledgeable in their areas of expertise. They can be very helpful in developing your proposal. That being said, don’t pester them on little details, they are also very overworked. It’s probably a good idea to call sooner rather than later.
- Let someone else read your proposal before you submit it. That someone should have a very strong command of the English language and should be able to let you know if the proposal reads well, presents the ideas clearly, and has perfect spelling and grammar. Also, don’t be clever in your presentation of the document. Times New Roman, 12 point, is the font of choice for newspapers, books and magazines for a reason – it’s easy on the eyes. Don’t make your reviewer’s job harder than it needs to be.
Some Technical Notes
- You are required to submit your proposal through FastLane. Sign up with FastLane and start using it right away. It’s pretty easy once you get used to it, but occasionally there are technical glitches and they will happen to you if you wait until the last minute.
- Get a DUNS number right away if you don’t have one. Call Dun and Bradstreet at (800) 333-0505 or find them online at http://www.dnb.com/us/. You will need a DUNS number to sign up with FastLane.
Winning Your Phase II
There is no official solicitation for a Phase II. If you have completed your Phase I NSF SBIR, you are eligible to apply for a Phase II grant. You may apply either the two following cycles, meaning if you completed your Phase I in December, you may apply either by January 31st or July 31st. The website has general Phase II proposal instructions.
Should You Apply?
When we are going through the proposals, they may be rejected for many reasons. Mostly proposals are rejected because they do not meet the technical or commercial hurdles required for a Phase II grant. That being said, we periodically hit a proposal that is rejected for other reasons that could have saved the company and the grant committee a lot of time.
If you did not get any positive results from Phase I, don’t bother to submit a Phase II proposal. We occasionally see companies who say basically, “my idea for Phase I didn’t pan out, but I have another idea on how to make this work, so I am submitting for support of that idea.” That is another Phase I proposal. It gets immediately labeled as such and put in the rejection pile. Don’t bother to submit that as a Phase II proposal.
If you are not confident of your results, check with your program manager. They should be willing to suggest areas that need shoring up and also should let you know if they don’t believe a Phase II proposal will get funded.
Writing Your Phase II Proposal
The number one reason why proposals get rejected is technical. The technical review team is made up of scientists and engineers in the field of study of the solicitation. The program managers have selected a panel that has deep knowledge in your area of research. They expect the technical portion of the proposal to look like any other grant, meaning they expect all the technical information needed to make a decision on the technology, backed up by references. I have heard many times on the panel, “Well, this looks interesting, but I don’t have enough information to determine whether it is feasible.”
If you have never been a university scientist, it behooves you to find one in your area of expertise and ask them to review your technical proposal before you submit it. The technical reviewers are extremely brutal and are unwilling to compromise their review standards.
The second reason, and much lower on the weighting scale, is the commercial section. I have seen a technology where the technical reviewers rave about in its innovativeness and brilliance, but the commercial reviewers can’t see a market at all, and the project gets funded. I have never seen a great business plan, with a mediocre technology, get funded.
The business plan is important though. Should your proposal be placed next to another with a similar quality of technology, the commercialization section can carry the day.
Your plan should clearly define the steps that your company will take to get from R&D to revenues. If you need to build a beta tool after the prototype has been completed, you should have a clear definition as to how you will fund it. Just so you know, everyone says, “we will raise venture capital.” Raising venture capital is easier said than done. If you are going to say that, make sure that you have some venture capitalists review your technology and write letters of support. Also, have alternative plans in case the VCs don’t drop money in your lap.
Also, a lot of proposals say things like, “We will partner with Honeywell to manufacture our first project. Five years later, we will have $50 million in revenue.” It seems that people put a lot of thought into getting the first product completed and are good at imagining what will happen in five years, but they seem to skip the whole process in between – which by the way, is the hard part.
Another commercialization issue is the lack of any business experience in the management team. If you can’t afford to hire some one, find some business advisers (and listen to them). You can start with your local S.C.O.R.E. office.
Finally, have someone read over your proposal. It should be written clearly, with no grammar or spelling mistakes. If you can’t find business advisers or someone to read your proposal, why would someone want to give (yes, give) you $600,000.
Click here to visit the NSF SBIR website. Good luck.