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NIH SBIR Grants: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at NIH SBIR Reviewer’s Scoring Criteria

As an NIH reviewer myself, in this article, I’m going to share with you what NIH reviewers like myself are looking for when your SBIR application slides across the conference room table. I’ll go over how NIH reviewers are evaluating your SBIR application and the review criteria they are using to determine whether or not your application gets funded. If you are thinking of submitting either an SBIR or STTR application to the NIH, you will want to read until the end so you can position your application to get awarded!

First, let me introduce myself. I’m Stacy Chin from where we help start-ups like yours secure non-dilutive federal grants to bring innovative ideas to the commercial market. We specialize in helping science and tech start-ups secure non-dilutive grant funding from federal programs called SBIR, or Small Business Innovation Research, and STTR, or Small Business Technology Transfer.

If you are interested in learning more about SBIR or STTR funding as a whole, you can find a helpful video here.

Now, let’s get into it!

NIH SBIR Application Peer-Review Process

Once you submit your NIH SBIR application, it goes through a peer review process. The NIH SBIR peer review is performed by a panel of scientific and technical industry experts relevant to the focus of your application.

They are responsible for evaluating the application based on several criteria, including the scientific and technical merit of the proposed research, the potential commercial impact, and the capabilities of the start-up to carry out the proposed work.

To learn about what goes on behind the scenes during the entire peer-review process, check out the video I made on that here.

Scientific Review

One can argue that the most important part of the peer-review process is the Scientific Review which is when your SBIR application gets picked apart by a panel of experts in your field, who will evaluate the scientific and technical merit of your proposed project. Here, 3 reviewers, or sometimes 4, will read through your SBIR application and then provide an overall impact score to reflect their assessment of the project.

NIH Scoring System

The NIH uses a scoring system that has a 9-point rating scale, with 1 being exceptional, 9 being poor, and 5 being a good medium-impact application or an average score.

High scores of 1, 2, and 3 mean that reviewers think if the proposal was completed successfully, the aims will make a contribution of high importance to the field. Usually, these applications have little to no weaknesses.

Medium scores of 4, 5, and 6 mean that reviewers think your application may make a moderate contribution to the field. These applications usually have some to little weaknesses.

Finally, low scores of 7, 8, and 9 mean that the application may make a contribution of low or no importance to the field. Usually, these applications have quite a few weaknesses.

5 Primary NIH SBIR Application Scoring Criteria

So now you know how reviewers will score your application, let’s chat about what exactly they are scoring. There are 5 main criteria that reviewers are using when evaluating the overall impact of your SBIR application.

1. Significance

2. Investigator(s)

3. Innovation

4. Approach

5. Environment

Let’s break down each of these in detail so you can figure out how to best position your SBIR grant for getting an award.

1. Significance

The first is the Significance. You can think of the Significance as the “Importance” of your project. Here reviewers will evaluate whether your R&D efforts will advance the field of knowledge and whether your innovation is aligned with the NIH mission to improve health and overall well-being.

Reviewers will be evaluating whether or not your innovation is addressing an important problem or a critical barrier to progress in the field as well. They are also going to ask themselves, “If these proposed aims were achieved, how will scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice be improved?”

To get a good score on the Significance section, you must make sure in your SBIR application to mention how will the successful completion of the aims change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field.

2. Investigator

The second is the Investigator or the Investigator team. Here, the reviewers are evaluating how suitable the principal investigators (PIs), collaborators, and other researchers are to carry out the proposed research. They are going to look at everyone’s biosketches and also evaluate everyone’s background and expertise collectively as a team.

For early-stage investigators, new investigators, or those in the early stages of independent careers, reviewers will be assessing their experience and training to determine if they are well-equipped for the project. For more well-established investigators, reviewers are looking for a record of accomplishments that have demonstrated they have made advances in their field(s).

In the case of a collaborative or multi-PI project, reviewers are also looking at the investigators' complementary and integrated expertise, as well as their leadership approach, governance, and organizational structure, to ensure they are appropriate for the project.

If you are wondering how to properly structure your team for a Phase I or Phase II SBIR application, check out my video on that here.

3. Innovation

Third, is the Innovation. Here, reviewers are going to evaluate how novel or innovative your proposed innovation is. To do so, they will ask themselves, “If you were successful in your SBIR efforts, how likely would your innovation challenge and shift the current research or clinical practices being used today?”

To set yourself up for a strong score on the Innovation, it is important to explain in your SBIR application how you are using novel theoretical concepts, approaches, methodologies, instrumentation, or intervention to develop your technology. You also should explain how your innovation differs from what is available in the field.

4. Approach

Next is the Approach which, in my opinion, is one of the more difficult criteria to get a strong score. When looking at the Approach, reviewers are evaluating whether your overall strategy, methodology, and analyses are well-reasoned and appropriate to accomplish the Specific Aims of the project. In other words, they are looking to see how rigorous your R&D plan is.

For example, is your plan feasible and will lead to the proposed deliverables if you were successful? Were there quantitative metrics of success to benchmark that you have completed the aim? Did you mention any potential problems and provide any alternative solutions in case Plan A didn’t work out?

Additionally, if you are in the early stages of developing your innovation, such as in Phase I, reviewers will be evaluating whether your proposed efforts would help you to derisk your technical hurdles so that you would be in a strong position to pursue Phase II.

So to get a competitive score for the Approach, ensure you propose a rigorous R&D strategy by including all the nitty, gritty details required in your experimental approach to establish the feasibility of your innovation.

5. Environment

Last but not least is the 5th criterion which is the Environment. To evaluate the environment, reviewers are looking at your facilities, resources, and equipment document to determine if you have access to the necessary institutional support, equipment, and other physical resources available to adequately carry out the proposed project.

So for example, reviewers may look into your scientific environment, such as the lab or incubator you propose to use, and determine if the work can be completed properly that would lead to success. They will also evaluate whether your project will benefit from features within the scientific environment subject populations or collaborative arrangements. To get a strong score on the Environment, make sure to spend the time to draft the facilities, resources, and equipment document properly and mention everything you need to carry out the proposed research.

And with that, those are the 5 main review criteria that NIH reviewers will be using to evaluate your SBIR or STTR application.

Unscored NIH SBIR Application Review Criteria

However, it is also important to note that there are additional unscored review criteria that may be applicable to your application when getting reviewed.

Some examples of these could be the Study Timeline (for applications involving clinical trials); Protections for Human Subjects; Inclusion of Women, Minorities, and Children; Vertebrate Animals; and, Biohazards (if any). Reviewers may also comment on the strength of your application whether it was a Resubmission, Renewal, or Revision.

Finally, other additional review considerations may also include how the start-up plan to collaborate with Foreign Organizations, Select Agents, Resource Sharing Plans, Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources, and finally the Budget and Period Support.

If any of these other criteria may be relevant to your SBIR application, you may consider working with an SBIR consultant like our team here at in order to ensure you address them accordingly.

NIH SBIR Application Scoring Criteria Key Takeaways

Ultimately, all NIH SBIR applications are scored in the same way, so to set yourself up for the best chance at getting your application awarded, you must know what they are looking for! By addressing these five primary scoring criteria in your application before submitting it, you’ll have an edge over the competition.

Even after reviewing these criteria, it can be tricky to verify that you have included all of the proper information as it applies to your specific industry and innovation. Luckily, here at, we have tons of resources, videos, and articles to help you out. We also have a team of expert SBIR/STTR consultants that can serve as your personal guide in your journey toward getting the start-up funding you need.

Reach out today to see how the team can be your secret weapon!

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