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PhDs vs. MBAs: Who Writes a Better SBIR Application?

It's time for the battle of the degrees! In this video, I’m going to break down the pros and cons of preparing an SBIR application for those with a business background and those with a technical background. At the end of the video, I’m going to share my thoughts on who writes a better SBIR application – those with a Ph.D. or those with an M.B.A. Which one do you think will take the win, PhDs or MBAs?


Before we get started, 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, or Small Business Innovation Research, and STTR, or Small Business Technology Transfer. If you are interested in learning more about SBIR or STTR funding, I have made an overview video you can find here.



SBIR Grant Application Overview


SBIR and STTR grants are competitive federal-based funding opportunities designed to support small businesses and start-ups pursuing research and development projects that have strong commercialization potential.


Technical Aspects


To prepare a strong SBIR application, technical expertise is required to develop a rigorous technical proposal that meets the requirements of the selected SBIR program. This includes identifying research questions, developing a research plan, conducting experiments, and analyzing data. Technical expertise is typically provided by a team member with a Ph.D. or engineering background.


Commercialization Aspects


However, technical feasibility alone is not enough to secure funding through an SBIR program. The proposed technology must also have commercial potential that can be demonstrated through a commercialization plan.


This requires business acumen, financial analysis, and marketing expertise to identify potential markets, develop a go-to-market strategy, identify potential investors and customers, and create a plan to generate revenue. The commercialization expertise is typically provided by a team member with an MBA or business background.


The Influence of a Founder’s Background


For the past 10 years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many talented Founders to advise them on their SBIR strategy. Usually, many of these Founders either have a strong business background, like an M.B.A., a strong technical research background, like a Ph.D., or sometimes, they have both! And from my experience, those Founders with a business background versus a technical background have certain strengths and weaknesses in the SBIR preparation process and vice versa.


As a Founder, identifying which side you fall on is very important since knowing your own strengths and weaknesses can help you allocate your time and resources effectively when developing a competitive SBIR proposal so that in the long run, you can increase your chances of securing funding.


With that being said, using my experience as an SBIR grant consultant and NIH SBIR grant reviewer, I’m going to break down the high-level strengths and weaknesses that Founders may have when preparing SBIR applications depending on whether they have a business background or a technical background.



Technical Founders


Let’s first start out with Founders with a technical research background, which are usually those with a Ph.D.


Strengths


These Founders bring strong technical expertise, research experience, and a high level of attention to detail. Technical Founders have a deep understanding of the science or technology underlying the SBIR proposal, which can be critical in developing innovative ideas.


They are often highly experienced in research, which means they can develop strong R&D plans for SBIR proposals. And, they are often highly detail-oriented, which can be an advantage when it comes to developing a comprehensive and convincing SBIR proposal.


Weaknesses


However, if a founder with a strong technical background lacks business acumen, they may struggle to develop a strong commercialization plan that meets the requirements of the SBIR program. This is because they may lack business experience which can make it challenging to develop a commercialization strategy that is aligned with their R&D goals.


Another challenge is that while PhDs are often highly skilled in technical writing, they may not be as effective at communicating their ideas to a broad audience, which can be difficult when it comes to developing a persuasive SBIR proposal. PhDs may have a more limited perspective on the market and the broader business environment, which can also limit their ability to develop a comprehensive and effective SBIR proposal as well.


Technical Founders are likely to create an outstanding R&D strategy with plenty of detail and evidence but can struggle with the commercialization plan and persuasion aspects of an SBIR application.



Business-Based Founders


Now, let’s discuss the other situation when Founders have a strong business background, usually with an MBA.


Strengths


These founders, especially those with an MBA, are trained in business administration, which means they have a good understanding of how to run a business and manage finances. They will have a strong grasp of how to market and sell products or services, which can be useful when it comes to developing commercialization strategies for SBIR proposals. MBAs are trained to think strategically and develop long-term plans, which can be helpful in creating a solid SBIR proposal.


Weaknesses


On the other hand, if a founder has a strong business background but lacks technical expertise, they may struggle to develop a strong technical proposal that meets the requirements of the SBIR program. MBAs may lack technical expertise, which can be a disadvantage when it comes to developing innovative ideas that require a deep understanding of the underlying science or technology. MBAs may not have the same level of research experience as PhDs, which can make it challenging to develop a strong research plan for an SBIR proposal.


MBAs also may focus more on the broad strokes of a proposal rather than diving deep into the details, which can be problematic in developing a convincing proposal due to the lack of technical depth in an SBIR application.


It is important to remember that experts in your industry will be reviewing your SBIR application after submission, so not providing enough detail makes it hard to give the experts in your field the confidence that you can implement the proposed plans to utilize the grant money effectively. If you want to learn more about what happens after you submit your SBIR application, you can find a breakdown of the process here.


So, in general, Business-Based Founders often excel at building an outstanding commercialization plan, organizing financial plans, and managing the business logistics that come with an SBIR grant-funded project, but can have a difficult time relaying the technical R&D details.


Crowning a Winner: Who Writes a Better SBIR Proposal?


Now that we have looked at the strengths and weakness of a Founder with a Ph.D. versus a Founder with an MBA, it’s time to declare the winner! Who writes a better SBIR proposal– PhDs or MBAs?


Well, in my opinion, neither! To prepare a strong SBIR grant application, you need both! I’ve worked with many academic Professors from top universities like MIT, Duke, Harvard, and UCLA, who excel at devising a rigorous R&D strategy but lack the business expertise to angle it toward commercialization. Likewise, I’ve worked with many business start-up executives with successful exits and acquisitions who were unaware of how to prepare a rigorous R&D strategy.


From my experience, start-ups that prepare the strongest SBIR proposals have both the technical and the business expertise on their team. And that’s because the technical expert will ensure that the proposal meets the R&D requirements of the SBIR program, while the business expert will ensure that the proposal demonstrates the commercial potential and has a strong go-to-market plan.


By identifying their strengths and weaknesses, Founders can assemble a team with complementary skills and expertise to develop a strong SBIR proposal. This can include partnering with other companies or academic institutions to provide technical expertise or hiring consultants or advisors to provide business expertise.


PhDs vs. MBAs For SBIR Grant Proposals Key Takeaways


Overall, what a Technical Founder lacks, a Business-Based Founder brings to the table and vice versa. Due to the nature of the SBIR grant application requiring both technical and business aspects, PhDs and MBAs write the best SBIR proposals together. At the end of the day, the combination of these skills is the essential key to convincing the funding agency that the proposed technology is both technically feasible and has a clear path to commercialization.

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