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NIH SBIR Review Process: What Happens After Submitting an SBIR Application?

What happens after you submit your SBIR to the NIH? Your application goes through a peer-review process which consists of several standard steps to evaluate your SBIR before a funding decision is made. As an NIH SBIR reviewer myself, I’m going to share what happens to your SBIR application during the peer-review process so that you are aware of how the NIH makes its funding decision so that you can position your SBIR application strategically and have the best chances of securing funding.


First, let me introduce myself. I’m Stacy Chin from KeepYourEquity.co 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 and STTR. If you are interested in learning more about SBIR funding as a whole, I have an overview video you can find here.


You’ve spent months grinding to prepare a strong SBIR application to the NIH. After you submit your application, you likely won’t hear back until 4 months later to know whether or not the agency wants to award your grant. So what is going on during those 4 months? Is the agency just twiddling its thumbs as you wait in anticipation? Or, are reviewers just taking their sweet time figuring out if you should get awarded? Well, it’s actually not quite like that...


NIH SBIR Review Process Overview


Your SBIR application actually goes through a standardized and rigorous peer-review process and must follow a series of steps before the funding agency can decide whether or not to award your grant. Start-ups should be aware of the NIH peer-review process when preparing their application because it is a critical factor in determining whether their proposal will be funded.


The NIH SBIR program is highly competitive, and only a small percentage of proposals receive funding. Understanding the peer-review process can help start-ups to better prepare their application and increase their chances of success.


Why Does The NIH Use A Peer-Review Process?


There are a couple of reasons why the NIH has adopted this peer review process to evaluate SBIR applications:


Objectivity


First, the peer-review process is designed to evaluate the scientific and technical merit of the proposed project, as well as the qualifications of the key personnel involved in the project and the adequacy of the resources and facilities available to carry out the research - OBJECTIVELY.


This means that the reviewers are looking for innovative and feasible solutions to important problems in the field based on their own scientific expertise. And again, this is all done in an objective manner. The NIH takes any conflicts of interest very seriously so that all applications can be evaluated fairly.


Relevance


Secondly, the peer-review process evaluates the relevance of the proposed project to the goals of the funding agency. They also must evaluate the potential impact of their research on public health and the likelihood of success in achieving their proposed goals.


Valuable Feedback


Finally, the peer-review process provides valuable feedback to start-ups even if their proposal is not funded. The reviewers will provide detailed comments and suggestions for improvement that can be used to strengthen future proposals.


5 NIH SBIR Application Peer-Review Process Steps


So since you now understand why the NIH has adopted a peer-review process, let’s chat about each step in the NIH review process and what happens to your SBIR application after you hit the submit button. I’m going to break this down into the 5 major steps which are:

  • Initial Administrative Review

  • Scientific Review

  • Advisory Council

  • Funding Decision

  • Award Notification

Initial Administrative Review


The first step of the NIH SBIR review process is the Initial Administrative Review. In this stage, the NIH staff will first review your application to ensure that it is complete and that it meets the eligibility requirements.


For example, they will verify that all required documents and forms are included, that the application meets the submission deadline, and that the project meets the specific requirements for the SBIR program. If your application does not pass the initial administrative review, it will be returned to you without further review.


This can happen if you exceed the page limit on the required documents, made your font or margins too small, missed the submission deadline. To avoid this, make sure you read the solicitation carefully and follow the directions exactly to prepare your SBIR application so that it has the best shot of passing this Initial Administrative Review.


Scientific Review


So once your SBIR application passes the Initial Administrative Review, it goes to the second step which is the Scientific Review. And this is when your SBIR application gets picked apart by experts, which is everyone’s favorite step! Here, this review is conducted by a panel of experts in your field, who will evaluate the scientific and technical merit of your proposed project.


There are a lot of mini-steps that go into the Scientific Review, which is arguably the most important step of the peer-review process.


Scientific Review Group


First, the NIH staff will assign the applications to a Scientific Review Group (SRG) based on the research area and expertise required. The SRG is composed of scientists from various disciplines who will evaluate the applications. If you’d like to learn more about the different Scientific Review Groups, you can find that here.


Reviewer Assignments


Once your SBIR application finds a home, you will get assigned 3 reviewers with the first reviewer usually being an expert in your space while the other two reviewers may have different backgrounds to complement reviewer 1’s expertise. Some applications may have 1 or 2 additional ones with a total of up to 5 reviewers.


Independent Review


Independently, each reviewer will read through your application and evaluate the Significance, Investigators, Innovation, Approach, and Environment of your SBIR application and provide a rating from 1-9, with 1 being very strong and 9 being weak. If you’d like me to do another video that explains the review criteria, leave a comment below!


Panel Review


Afterward, the entire panel comes together, either in person or via Zoom, and they will discuss the top 50 percentile of the rated applications. In this discussion, the panel will discuss the proposal’s strengths and weaknesses which may result in recommendations for improvements or additional information.


Advisory Council


After the Scientific Review is complete, your SBIR application moves toward the NIH Institute or Center’s National Advisory Council. Here, this council is responsible for reviewing the study section's results and then determining the relevance of the applications to the NIH Institute’s priorities and public health needs.


The Council is also responsible for considering the balance of the overall research portfolio and helps the Director make a funding decision based on the scientific merit of the proposals, their relevance to the goals of the funding agency, and the availability of funds. The Council's recommendations are taken into account by the funding agency when making the final funding decision.


Funding Decision


Next, a Funding Decision will be made. The outcome of this step is based on the results of the scientific and advisory council review. Here the funding agency will make a decision on whether or not to fund your project. The decision is based on several factors, including the scientific merit of your proposed project, its relevance to the goals of the funding agency, the availability of funds, and the overall balance of the portfolio of projects being funded.


Just-in-Time


If the agency wants to fund your application, you may be required to go through their version of due diligence called the Just-in-Time, or JIT, process. Here you may be asked to submit additional information or follow up with more details to certain questions from the agency. If you get a JIT request, this is a great sign but it’s still something to take very seriously!


Award Notification


And, finally, if the NIH agency decides to fund your SBIR application, you will receive an Award Notification which is the last step of the process. This Notice of Award, or NoA, outlines the terms and conditions of the funding, including the amount of funding, the duration of the award, and any reporting requirements.


NIH SBIR Application Review Process Key Takeaways


So with that, those are the 5 steps of the review process that occurs when you submit your SBIR application to the NIH. They definitely aren’t just sitting around and making random decisions after all!


The biggest key to success with getting your SBIR grant awarded the first time is to be diligent in following the solicitation and get professional advice from an SBIR grant consultant like one of our experts here at KeepYourEquity.co. See how we can help you increase your chances of securing small business funding without giving away your equity!

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