A letter to those inquiring about the NSF SBIR proposal

July 19, 2017
Company & TechnologyJulia Winter

A letter to those inquiring about the NSF SBIR proposal

Since being awarded our SBIR Phase I award in January 2016 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and now with our Phase II award, I receive inquiries from folks asking for advice and/or a copy of our proposal. I usually send them the following response in an email.

Hello xxx,

I am reluctant to give you our project description because I do not think having that in front of you will help you in your writing process. Your goal is to tell the "story" of your idea (both from a technical and business side) and modeling it after another document would get in the way of that narrative.

Here are suggestions:
  • Develop your value proposition. What is problem are you solving for your customers? Go out and test your hypothesis with actual potential customers and see if you are planning on building something customers want and need. This is REALLY important. You are writing a business proposal tied to a technical plan--both these pieces are of equal importance.
  • Understand your market and do some research as to how big the market is, and how much would they be willing to spend on your solution. The NSF wants to fund companies that have the potential to scale and be sustainable in the marketplace after the grant funding is complete through Phase II.
  • On that note, investors also want a company that is able to grow and scale. The NSF wants you to start looking for potential investors and partners, these are powerful letters to gather in support of your idea. Start early, as these letters are a big part of your Phase I package. With all our proposals, these were the last pieces to get in order, even though I started lining them up before I started writing.
  • Make sure you propose something for Phase I that can be developed and tested in the time frame of 6-12 months. And devise a method for testing whether you have met your technical objectives. Do not bite off too much. (Our ONLY technical objective for the funded Phase I project was that we would build our game prototype and 50% of 30 professors who used it would recommend it to their students.  We hit 92% at the end of Phase I. So that was great.)
  • Your idea needs also to be innovative and defendable. In other words, look at your competition, are you doing something that is already out there, but just tweaked.? Or is it brand new and hard to copy? Can you possibly patent your idea? The NSF really likes that.

I was a chemistry teacher for 25 years and wrote our successful Phase I proposal while teaching full time in June 2015. I had never written this kind of document before. I worked day and night (obsessively) on it for nearly 6 weeks.

I had consultants from BBCetc (an amazing SBIR firm) give me feedback on the proposal and budget. I also had great feedback provided by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and financial support from them in the form of matching funds from the Michigan Emerging Technology Fund. (Research these kind of possibilities in your state.)

We took another idea and wrote different SBIR Phase I proposals to both the Department of Education (Jan 2016)  and to the NSF (June 2016). This idea was NOT funded. Many of my above suggestions are coming from that idea, as opposed to the one that got funded. (Yes, spending 4-5 weeks of obsessive writing on these proposals, too. You really have to look at the time cost of proposal writing with respect to funding rate.)

One more thing: Follow the proposal directions completely. Obvious, but easily overlooked.

Hope this helps! It's been great to earn the award. I based our project on years of teaching organic chemistry, so a lot of the market research came from direct use cases from my classroom and in discussions with fellow instructors. Having NSF funding opens doors for me when I speak with potential customers who are mostly college-level chemistry professors.

I would be happy to hop on the phone for a quick chat, if you think it would help.

Good luck with your idea!

Julia Winter

Co- Author