Proposal Development Guidelines
Winning SBIR proposals and grant requests have to provide answers to two primary questions: 1) What is so special about what you are proposing? and 2) Why should the reviewer believe that the technology will actually be commercialized if you get the money? This usually requires the proposer to possess good, current technology and market planning data.
SBIR contracts are awarded competitively based on scientific and technical merit. High standards have built the SBIR program into an ongoing success story.
Proposals are usually evaluated by scientists and engineers who are well versed in the topic area being considered. The majority of topics are very specific in their technology requirements. However, many are created as "generic" topics searching for innovative solutions to broad requirements. Examples: "Develop innovative ideas/concepts in the area of environmental engineering"; or "Develop new and improved materials for controlling the optical signature of aircraft"; "Improving life in Rural Communities"; or even "Innovative Methods for Reducing Costs in the US Army".
The evaluation process considers the qualifications of the principal investigator and other key staff, the soundness and technical merit of the proposal approach, the potential for commercial applications and the adequacy of the proposed effort to fulfill the requirements expressed in the topic. And, as the SBIR program emphasizes innovation, special consideration is given to the originality of the proposal in solving technological challenges.
As in any business enterprise an essential element in "making the sale" involves early market research. Marketing research, i.e., getting to know the customer and their needs/ marketing requirements, is an important early step taken by a significant proportion of successful Phase I SBIR awardees.
There are a large number of government R&D organizations who submit solicitation topics to the SBIR program. Small businesses should initially determine the specific organization working with the business's basic line of research. An old SBIR solicitation can be used as a handy reference for this purpose. Find related topics that are of interest, match them to the laboratory listed, and call the SBIR manager shown for that lab. This manager should be able to direct you to the key players in your area of research. Discussions with the key scientists and technicians can be a valuable marketing tool. It allows the business to determine the laboratory's current research interests and its future needs while providing an excellent opportunity to discuss the business's research ideas. Additionally, each laboratory may offer specific briefings and brochures to industry that provide insight into SBIR topics that will appear in the next formal solicitation. As appropriate these are announced in the Commerce Business Daily (CBD).
According to both laboratory scientists/engineers and successful SBIR awardees, such marketing research is important. These early marketing discussions have often proven invaluable in preparing future SBIR proposals, and small businesses have often learned of other, non-SBIR types of solicitations (e.g., broad agency announcements) into which they can submit proposals.
Proposals are a response to a specific agency solicitation, non-solicited proposals are not considered. Some agency solicitation topics are broad enough to encompass varied responses of different innovative applications and others involve unambiguous specifications. Even so, each agency's solicitation involves precise structure and format criteria that must be adhered to. Failure to do so can result in administrative rejection without review.
Proposals must be 25 pages or less, adhere to stringent formats set forth by each agency and address stated agency objectives and missions. An agency will review proposals using either internal technical experts, a peer review recommendation or rating process.
The following are some short generalizations concerning these sections.
- Cover Page - Must contain all agency specified information in a specific format.
- Abstract - A short project summary and must be less than the required number of words. The abstract summary should contain project benefits and use key words. The abstract is the most important part of the proposal!
- Problem or Opportunity - Explains what the feasibility study or prototype development is addressing as a proposed solution. Usually, this is a specific product, process, or service. An opportunity to further scientific knowledge could also be a stated problem thus presents feasibility as a scientific method or means to bridge defined limitations. Likewise, a product that may lead another product to market can also solve a solicitation problem.
- Background - Lists relevant information concerning the problem and should include proposed technical approach justifications.
- Objectives - Precise target steps to solution and outcome goals or individual project aspirations.
- Work Plan - Details what, when, and how exactly stated objectives will be met.
- Related Research/Work - Discuss other applications, relationships, and knowledge of the proposed work with respect to current state-of-the art disciplines and proposed work.
- Commercial Applications - Justify market potential and demonstrate a capital plan with documented resources to bring the work to market. The market can be public or governmental procurement. The commercial outcome can be a product, process, service development or advancement of knowledge to bridge other product developments. Pending or committed capital plans or resources should be clearly identified.
- Key Personnel - Abbreviated resumes of the principle investigators and short summary information for other key support or consultant personnel. A description of facility and equipment resources should also be included. These can be owned by the company or easily accessible from other nearby organizations. Documented (authorized or contracted) access to other research institution or company facilities and equipment is acceptable and often a means to bolster small business credibility and capability.
- Budget - All direct and indirect costs demonstrating a sound financial approach and a general knowledge of related governmental accounting principles.
Some sections do have specific length limitations, but others require only adherence to the total 25 page limit. Proposals and sections shorter than the limits are appropriate and beneficial, so long as required information and content is not sacrificed. The proposal writer should learn what sections have the highest percentage scoring, and insure that valuable space is apportioned for those sections most heavily weighted in review evaluation.
Effective proposals are often a team or networked result, seek help and feedback as required. The Proposal Preparation Handbook (SBA) discussed in the next section below lists noteworthy information concerning proposal format and strategy.
REMEMBER to review specific agency guidelines, format and harvest agency information early to optimize proposal planning and preparation.
Always, insure that you comply with format requirements, specifications, and that all receipt deadlines and procedures are clearly identified and followed. Proposals not precisely compliant will be administratively rejected and not reviewed for funding.
An outline or tabular summary of important perspectives and considerations for SBIR proposals and competition. Chris W. Busch, Ph.D. is a nationally recognized SBIR luminary, has given numerous presentations helping small businesses to access SBIR/STTR, and is the originator of the Montana SBIR Initiative.