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SBIR/STTR Grant Tips: Get your NSF Project Pitch APPROVED!

Before you even start your Phase I SBIR or STTR application to the National Science Foundation, you’ll have to first submit a Project Pitch. It sounds like a hassle and in some ways it is, but here at KeepYourEquity.co, we’re here to help Founders like you navigate the intricacies of non-dilutive funding.


So with that, let’s break down how to respond to the top 4 questions in the NSF Project Pitch application so that you can increase your chances of approval.

What Is The NSF Project Pitch and Its Purpose?


According to the NSF SBIR website, the Project Pitch, “allows startups and small businesses to get quick feedback at the start of their application for Phase I funding.” This is a mandatory step for start-ups looking to submit a Phase I SBIR grant proposal. Personally, I think that the project pitch is a great way to help Founders learn whether or not their innovation is aligned with the NSF SBIR project objectives before investing any time and resources in a Phase I application.


The NSF Project Pitch Process


To submit a project pitch, start-ups must respond to a series of prompts in an online form. And if their pitch gets approved, the NSF sends an e-mail confirming the innovation is a good fit for the program. Not only does this e-mail serve as the official invitation to submit a full Phase I proposal, but it is also a mandatory component to include in the final submission.


Even though the NSF Project Pitch has been around since 2019, I have found it’s getting harder and harder to get pitches approved. This is because there are just so many start-ups who want to apply for the full Phase I SBIR grant since it is a chance at securing up to $275,000 of non-dilutive funding if awarded.


Pitch Prompts


The 4 primary prompts that start-ups must respond to in their project pitch application are:

  • Describe the Technology Innovation

  • Describe the Technical Objectives and Challenges

  • Describe the Market Opportunity

  • Describe the Company and Team

Although these high-level questions seem very generic and straightforward, in reality, competitive pitches have a lot of thought and strategy behind the responses. You should treat the Project Pitch as a “mini-SBIR grant application” so you’ll want to be thorough and take your time to properly address each of the prompts.


The Element of Strategy


After years of navigating this Project Pitch process, I have come up with a strategy that has been incredibly helpful for our clients to not only get their pitches approved but also to transform rejected pitches into approved pitches. This strategy has worked great for start-ups developing innovations across many different industries including medical, manufacturing, environment, energy, software, and many more, too.

NSF Project Pitch Prompt Breakdown & Successful Strategies


So, to help you prepare a strong NSF project pitch and have the best chance at approval, I’m going to walk you through what I have found to be the best way to respond to each prompt.


I also have a step-by-step template that walks you through the exact same strategy which is a great resource if you want to give the Project Pitch application a shot yourself before investing in help from a consultant. Right now, it’s 50% off with the code APPROVEMYPITCH


Alright, now let’s look at these prompts and how to tackle them!


Prompt #1 - Describe the Technology Innovation


According to the NSF Project Pitch website, the instructions for this prompt are, “Describe the technical innovation that would be the focus of a Phase I project, including a brief discussion of the origins of the innovation as well as an explanation as to why it meets the program’s mandate to focus on supporting research and development (R&D) of unproven, high-impact innovations.”


That’s a lot to address, so here’s exactly what they are looking for and how to respond in 2 paragraphs and under 500 words.


Before you even introduce your innovation, we need to first need to justify why we even need this solution. To do so, we have to give some context to the problem we are trying to solve. This is your first paragraph. Here you want to:

  • Use quantitative descriptions to present the problem

  • Identify who is impacted by this problem

  • Describe their pain points

  • Summarize what solutions are out there and why don’t do a great job addressing those pain points

By laying the groundwork in this manner, we are addressing the latter part of the instructions first by describing why we need NSF funding to support R&D efforts for a new, high-impact innovation.


Now the second paragraph is all about pitching your innovation. The first couple of sentences should go straight to the point to describe what is your innovation and how it would solve the problem.


Essentially you need to answer: Why is this better than anything else out there and how would your innovation address your customer’s pain points?


It is always important to mention how would your innovation benefit everyone impacted by this problem. In this paragraph, you’ll also want to describe why your solution is TECHNICALLY innovative. And, here I want to stress the word TECHNICAL. Since this is an R&D proposal, our focus should be overcoming the TECHNICAL hurdles and to highlight the competitive TECHNICAL advantages of your innovation.


You can mention some of the commercial advantages here as well but I would encourage you to save that for either the full Phase I proposal or even your Phase II application.


Finally, summarize the focus of the Phase I project and how you came up with the idea for the innovation or the origins of the innovation. Once you’ve addressed all of these things, you are ready to attack the next prompt.


Prompt #2 - Describe the Technical Objectives and Challenges


The NSF Project Pitch instructions for this prompt are, “Describe the R&D or technical work to be done in a Phase I project, including a discussion of how and why the proposed work will help prove that the product or service is technically feasible and/or significantly reduce technical risk. Discuss how, ultimately, this work could contribute to making the new product, service, or process commercially viable and impactful. This section should also convey that the proposed work meets the definition of R&D, rather than straightforward engineering or incremental product development tasks.”


For prompt number two, there is a lot you have to consider in your response and you only have 500 words to do so. In my opinion, this is the hardest prompt to answer because a lot of thought has to go into your response. To make things a bit easier, I like to rephrase this question in a different way.


What they are really asking is this: if you were to get the Phase I award of $275,000, what are you doing to do TECHNICALLY to prove that your innovation (1) works and that (2) it is better than current solutions?


In other words, how do you prove that your innovation has commercial potential and is ready for Phase II?


You’ll want to identify the technical risks that you are prepared to overcome in your SBIR or STTR Phase I project by presenting a rigorous R&D strategy. I found the best way to go about this is to, first, summarize what your technical Phase I goal is in a short paragraph and then, break down each technical risk into 2-4 “big experiments” or “technical objectives” you are going to pursue.


You can draft a list of the technical objectives. For example, “Objective 1. We will develop a first working prototype by doing A, B, C.” Then after stating the objective, follow that up with a couple of sentences to summarize how you plan to overcome that technical hurdle and justify the approach. Rinse and repeat for each of the objectives!


It is also essential to emphasize that the NSF is looking at how you plan to overcome your TECHNICAL risks in your response. NSF will NOT fund projects that involve making incremental improvements to existing products/prototypes or marketing/customer discovery studies. Stay away from proposing anything around these topics.


Prompt #3 - Describe the Market Opportunity


Prompt number 3 asks you to “Describe the customer profile and pain point(s) that will be the near-term commercial focus related to this technical project.”


To me, this prompt is a bit confusing because it asks to “describe the market opportunity” but in the instructions, it asks to “describe the customer profile and pain points.” So, in 250 words, we have to address both.


First, describe the market opportunity. Make sure your response addresses the following questions:

  • What is your target market?

  • How much (in $) is the total available market (TAM)? What is the served available market (SAM)? What is the serviceable obtainable market (SOM)?

  • What are current market trends? How is your innovation aligned with these trends?

You can address these points in a couple of sentences to answer the first aspect of the prompt. Then, you can move on to the customer pain point section.


Here you want to make sure your responses hit all of the following key points:

  • Who is your end-user or targeted customer(s) and why?

  • What are your customer’s pain points?

  • How would your innovation, if successful, address your customer’s pain points?

It would also be a huge plus if you have conducted any customer discovery interviews since this shows that there is a documented market need for your proposed innovation.


Last but not least is…


Prompt #4 - Describe the Company and Team


The instructions for this prompt are, “Describe the background and current status of the applicant small business, including key team members who will lead the technical and/or commercial efforts discussed in this Project Pitch.”


Like prompt number 3, there is a 250-word count maximum, though this one should be pretty straightforward. Break your response into 2 sections.


First, give a high-level summary of your company. Here you can mention:

  • What is your company mission?

  • When was it founded and by whom?

  • Do you have any company milestones completed to date?

Next, summarize the key personnel of the start-up team that will be involved in your SBIR efforts. Here you should convey that you have all of the necessary expertise to carry out what you propose to do as it was laid out in your previous prompt.


If you want to learn more about how to best structure your SBIR team, I have a whole video that breaks this down which you can find here .


So for your team summary, state the names of each team member as well as their roles in the company. It is also vital to convey their expertise and highlight relevant past accomplishments to demonstrate credibility.

Final Advice

The NSF Project Pitch prompts are deceptive. Though they provide limited word counts and what seems like an easy question, reviewers are looking for thorough, strategic responses. Utilize this article as a guide throughout the NSF Project Pitch submission process to increase your chances of approval.


Do you have more questions about how to get your NSF Project Pitch approved? Let me know in the comments below! You can also find more tips and tricks for securing SBIR/STTR grants at KeepYourEquity.Co or by subscribing to our YouTube channel.

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