top of page

NSF SBIR Grants: A Behind The Scenes Look at NSF Reviewer Ratings

Wondering what happens when your NSF SBIR application is reviewed by the NSF SBIR reviewers? Well, make sure to read this entire article because I’m going to break down exactly how NSF SBIR reviewers are evaluating your application. This is very important for Founders to be aware of whether you are in the process of preparing your SBIR application or even just thinking about it so that you can position your SBIR application for the best chances of getting funded!

First, if you are new to the blog, I’m Stacy Chin from KeepYourEquity.co where we help start-ups secure non-dilutive grant funding from federal programs called the SBIR and the STTR. Last week, I posted an article that went over how reviewers from the National Institute of Health evaluate SBIR applications. So if you haven’t read that one, you can find it here.


But today, we are going to chat about how reviewers from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, evaluate SBIR applications. The criteria they use are quite different compared to that used within the NIH. But don’t worry, I’m going to break it all down for you below.


NSF SBIR Application Submission Process


Before you can prepare a Phase I SBIR application to the NSF, you’ll want to prepare and submit a Project Pitch application where they can evaluate your proposed idea and innovation and determine whether they are aligned with the NSF SBIR program. You’ll need to get invited to submit a full Phase I application since this e-mail invitation is a mandatory document you will need to include when submitting your full Phase I SBIR grant.


Here’s a link to a helpful video that goes over how to prepare your Project Pitch application. You can get the Keepyourequity.co template that I use for clients to get their pitches approved here. Use the code APPROVEMYPITCH to get 50% off!



NSF SBIR Application Review Process


After your project pitch is approved, you can prepare and submit your NSF SBIR application. Then, NSF reviewers will evaluate your application using the Merit Review Process Criteria.


Merit Review Process Criteria


The NSF Merit Review Process is a standard and objective approach to evaluating grant applications. This process helps the agency make a decision on how to invest in new science and engineering research ideas and innovations.


You will usually get assigned a minimum of 3 reviewers who are in your same industry or that relate to the focus of your application. These reviewers will independently read through your application and jot down the strengths and weaknesses of your application according to three main criteria of the Merit Review Process.

  1. Intellectual Merit

  2. Broader Impact

  3. Commercial Impact

We’ll dive deeper into each of these in a second.



NSF SBIR Review Rating Scale


Reviewers will then provide a summary of their review and then rate your SBIR application using the following scale: Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor.


A rating of “Excellent” indicates the reviewer is strongly advocating the agency to fund your SBIR proposal. Your goal is to get all “Excellent” across the board.


A rating of “Very Good” means that the reviewer is advocating for your application. However, there may be some minor weaknesses in your application but usually, your strengths should outweigh those weaknesses.


A rating of “Good” means that the reviewer thinks your SBIR application is okay and likely will provide recommendations for improvements.


A rating of “Fair” indicates that the reviewer thinks your SBIR should probably not be funded. “Fair” SBIR applications usually have more weaknesses in the proposal that outweighs the strengths.


And, finally, a rating of “Poor” means that reviewers do not recommend your SBIR should get funded due to either the lack of merit or impact. Reviewers here should recommend how to make improvements to your application which you should consider if you’d like to go for a resubmission.



A Break Down of NSF SBIR Review Criteria


So since we now know the three criteria which reviewers are using to evaluate your SBIR, as well as how they are scoring your grant, let’s go over what reviewers are particularly looking for in these three criteria during their review and decision-making process.


Intellectual Merit


The first one is Intellectual Merit. The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge within its own field or across different fields. To get a strong score in this criterion, you have to demonstrate your innovation is innovative and will also make a significant impact on the scientific community.


When evaluating your SBIR application, reviewers are looking to see whether your proposed R&D efforts are creative, original, and potentially transformative. The reviewers will evaluate your plan for carrying out the proposed activities, including whether it is well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale, as well as whether it incorporates a mechanism to assess success. Finally, reviewers will assess how well-qualified the individual, team, or organization is to conduct the proposed activities.


The questions the Reviewers must ask themselves when evaluating the Intellectual Merit are:

  • What is the potential for the proposed activity to advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (Intellectual Merit)?

  • To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?

  • Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?

  • How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?

  • Are there adequate resources available to the Principal Investigator (PI) either at the home organization or through collaborations to carry out the proposed activities?

So in your SBIR application, you want to make sure all of these questions are answered thoroughly!


Broader Impact


Next is the Broader Impact where reviewers are evaluating whether your idea has the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. I know you are probably wondering – What the heck does that even mean?


Well, you can think of a broader impact as ways you will benefit society if your SBIR efforts were successful. In other words will your innovation help to:

  • Increase public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology

  • Improve the well-being of individuals in society?

  • Develop a diverse, globally competitive workforce and US economy?

  • Increase partnerships between academia, industry, and others?

  • Improve the US’s national security?

  • Increase the economic competitiveness of the US?

  • Or enhance the infrastructure for research and education?

When reviewers are evaluating the broader impacts of your application, they will be asking themselves the following questions:

  • What is the potential for the proposed activity to benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (Broader Impacts)?

  • To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?

  • Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?

  • How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?

  • Are there adequate resources available to the PI either at the home organization or through collaborations to carry out the proposed activities?

Again, you will want to make sure all of these questions are answered when you prepare your SBIR application.


Commercial Impact


Finally, there is the Commercial Impact. In this area, reviewers will be evaluating the potential of how your innovation may lead to significant outcomes in the commercial market. They will be asking themselves the following questions when evaluating the Commercial Impact:

  • Is there a significant market opportunity that could be addressed by the proposed product, process, or service?

  • Does the company possess a significant and durable competitive advantage, based on scientific or technical innovation, that would be difficult for competitors to neutralize or replicate?

  • Is there a compelling potential business model?

  • Does the proposing company/team have the essential elements, including expertise, structure, and experience, that would suggest the potential for strong commercial outcomes?

  • Will NSF support serve as a catalyst to improve substantially the technical and commercial impact of the underlying commercial endeavor?

As you have probably guessed these questions will all need to be well answered in your application.


Additionally, if you are submitting a Phase II NSF SBIR application, reviewers are also required to note whether the start-up succeeded in providing a solid foundation for the proposed Phase II activity so keep that in mind.


NSF SBIR Application Ratings Key Takeaways


That wraps up the details of how NSF SBIR reviewers are rating your submission. Ensure when you are preparing your NSF SBIR application that you answer the questions reviewers are asking themselves for each criterion to increase your chance of getting the start-up funding you need.


If you need any help along the way, we have a ton of great resources, videos, and articles here at KeepYourEquity.co. Plus, we have a whole team of expert SBIR/STTR consultants that can act as your guide throughout your journey!


Have you submitted an application and received critiques following these criteria? If so, leave a comment below and share something you’ve learned in the reviewer process.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page