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Secure a 2023 DOD SBIR Grant with These 4 Secrets No One Has Told You!

The Department of Defense SBIR grants are in a category of their own which means you need to know the best strategy to get your DOD SBIR application approved. Don’t worry, here at KeepYourEquity.Co we’ve got you covered.

Keep reading because I’m going to spill my top secrets for DOD SBIR grant applications that have helped Founders like you secure millions in non-dilutive funding.

DOD SBIR Grant Logistics and Background

Let’s first get into some logistics and background information. The US Department of Defense has the biggest SBIR budget out of all of the federal agencies. So if you are developing an innovation that can benefit the military or DOD in some way, then pursuing a DOD SBIR or STTR application is a great way to secure non-dilutive funding for your start-up.

The DOD is composed of multiple defense agencies each with its own SBIR/STTR program designed to advance technologies and solutions tailored to their specific needs. A few of the common DOD agencies that have these programs are the Air Force, Navy, and Army but there are several others.

Finding DOD SBIR Grant Opportunities

The way that the DOD announces the various SBIR/STTR opportunities is through a government acquisition tool called the Broad Agency Announcement or BAA. Using these BAAs, the DOD agency sends out a call that they are looking for innovations that can either advance or improve their current systems and solutions. Sometimes BAAs are super broad, while other times, they are very specific. Each one will be unique.

Now to find the BAAs, you’ll want to search the Defense SBIR/STTR Innovation Portal, or the DSIP, which is a comprehensive resource to help start-ups find upcoming BAAs, other SBIR/STTR opportunities, answers to questions on current solicitations, and most importantly– the deadlines. We’ll talk more about those in a second.

Another reason to get familiar with the DSIP is that it’s the platform you’ll use to submit your SBIR application.

2023 DOD SBIR Grant Deadlines

Now back to those deadlines… During the course of a typical fiscal year, there are three pre-scheduled SBIR/STTR announcement cycles for the Department of Defense. However, keep an eye on the DSIP platform because there are sometimes additional BAA cycles added to the lineup.

For each cycle of the three pre-scheduled cycles, there are three really important dates you’ll need to mark on your calendar:

  1. The Pre-Release Date, which is the date when solicitations (or instructions) are available.

  2. The Open Date– As its name suggests, it’s the first day you can submit your SBIR application in the DISP, and finally…

  3. The Closing Date. The Closing Date is the absolute last day you can submit your SBIR application, so it's the deadline you definitely don’t want to miss!

For 2023, the pre-release dates for the three BAA cycles are January 11, April 19, and August 23. The breakdown of the dates can always be found on the DISP but here’s a quick look:

  • DoD SBIR 23.1 / STTR 23.A

    • PRE-RELEASE: January 11, 2023

    • OPEN: February 8, 2023

    • CLOSE: March 8, 2023

  • DoD SBIR 23.2 / STTR 23.B

    • PRE-RELEASE: April 19, 2023

    • OPEN: May 17, 2023

    • CLOSE: June 14, 2023

  • DoD SBIR 23.3 / STTR 23.C

    • PRE-RELEASE: August 23, 2023

    • OPEN: September 20, 2023

    • CLOSE: October 18, 2023

It’s important to point out that these dates and deadlines can occasionally change or get extended, but it’s not always the case, so again, check the DSIP portal regularly for any and all updates.

4 Secrets to Preparing a DOD SBIR Proposal

Now that we’ve taken care of the logistics, let’s talk about how to properly prepare an SBIR/STTR application for the DOD specifically.

There are a couple of unique aspects to consider when preparing a DOD grant application compared to other federal agencies. These key points should be integrated into your strategy in order for your application to be competitive for the DOD.

1. Your Innovation Must Solve a Very Particular DOD Need

To prepare a strong DOD SBIR, it’s vital to explain why your innovation is the best solution to solve a very particular pain point. These pain points can vary across the wide array of defense agencies that make up the DOD.

Again, BAAs can be very specific or very broad, though either way, you’ll need to show why your innovation is the best solution for a distinct DOD problem even if the BAA doesn’t list a specific need.

So what does that mean for you? That means you will still need to understand what goes on behind the scenes. For example, say you’re a start-up developing cutting-edge software technology to help the Air Force identify threats in the air from miles away on a real-time basis. In your grant proposal, you will have to explain how the Air Force is currently detecting threats, why these solutions are not effective, how these defects make them vulnerable, and why your innovation can solve this problem.

Unfortunately, getting all of this behind-the-scenes information can be quite difficult since some details are kept confidential. Luckily, if you aren’t sure if your innovation can solve a particular DOD need, there are a couple of things you can do.

First, you can search for white papers outlining today’s problems, current solutions, and recommendations for improvement written by military experts on Google to see if your innovation is aligned with what the DOD is looking for.

Secondly, you can try to connect and network with leaders within different defense agencies to learn more about the challenges they are currently facing and the ways they want to innovate. To make these connections, consider attending local networking events, reaching out to your current network for leads, or trying good, old-fashioned cold calling!

And, finally, there are also military-based accelerator programs designed to support start-ups developing technologies of interest to particular DOD agencies. If you get accepted, these programs will provide you and your start-up with lots of exposure to military customers and therefore give you the information you need.

From my experience, my start-up clients with the strongest DOD SBIR applications either have close contacts within the DOD, have worked in the military for years, or are developing technologies for DOD customers.

By understanding the exact pain points a defense agency’s call for research and innovation is trying to solve, you can provide a detailed explanation and breakdown of the best solution– aka your amazing idea! This will give you a huge leg-up in your SBIR application, which leads us to my second tip…

2. Don't Try to "Force" Your Innovation To Fit a DOD Need

Not all innovations are a good fit for the DOD and that is okay. But because the DOD has a really large pot of SBIR funding, I’ve come across many founders who want to give DOD grants a shot. And in most cases – I do agree that start-up founders should try and apply for DOD SBIR funding. In fact, I would recommend they do so if it makes sense for the situation.

However, I’ve also worked with Founders who have spent hours figuring out how they can “pivot” or more so, “force” their innovation to fit a DOD need. In these cases, I would encourage them to take a step back and re-evaluate if this is a good fit for them. If it’s not meant to be, it is not meant to be!

With that being said, if you are asking yourself, “should I pursue a DOD SBIR grant?” ask yourself these questions to make your decision:

  • Have I done my homework and fully understand the intricacies of the current pain points within the DOD?

  • Do I have a better solution to solving those pain points than what the DOD is currently doing?

  • Do I understand how to integrate my solution into their current systems and workflows?

  • And, most importantly, are my long-term start-up goals aligned with having the DOD as a potential customer?

If the answers to these questions are not all a confident yes, you may want to reconsider opting for a DOD SBIR opportunity and shift your focus to another federal agency. You don’t want to waste your time, energy, and resources when your innovation could be the perfect fit for say the National Institute of Health or the National Science Foundation, for example.

3. Understand Your Technology Readiness Level (TRL)

The DOD implemented a rating system, called the Technology Readiness Level, or TRL, as a way to determine the maturity of a technology. This is a standard system used across most, if not all, defense agencies. TRL is ranked on a scale from 1 to 9 with 1 describing a technology in the early concept phase and 9 being that the technology is in its final form and has been successful in pilots and deployments.

In SBIR applications, I like to encourage start-ups to use the TRL scale in 2 ways:

  • First, to describe what TRL rating their innovation is currently at.

  • Then secondly, to estimate what TRL rating the technology could reach upon SBIR completion.

I often see that start-ups who complete a Phase I SBIR are expected to be roughly around a TRL rating of 4-6 and then between 7-9 for Phase II. However, the TRL ranges can greatly vary depending on the technology itself and also the problem area they are trying to solve.

This is another reason why it is so important to ensure you have access to the proper connections and resources to help you evaluate the appropriate TRL levels your innovation needs to be in when pursuing a DOD SBIR application.

Either way, make sure to mention your current and expected final TRL rating in your SBIR grant proposal as this is a great way to show reviewers that you understand how an SBIR award could progress your innovation toward a commercial product for the DOD.

4. Know the Difference Between A Customer And An End-User

When pursuing a DOD SBIR application, no matter the phase, it’s critical that you understand who the customer is and who the end-user is for your proposed innovation. So let’s define who these people are.

The customer is the party within the defense agency that will be paying the start-up for the technology when the final product is ready. In contrast, the end-user is the party that will directly be engaging with the technology itself. Depending on your innovation and the problem you are solving, the customer and end-user may be the same. Other times, they will be different.

Now, in your DOD SBIR application, it is very important that you make this distinction. If you can identify and name-drop exactly which defense agency, organization, or group you are targeting as the customer and end-user, this would give you a huge advantage in your proposal.

If these groups can provide a letter of support or back you up in your SBIR grant, that’s even better. SBIR reviewers would love this since this shows that you have done your homework, started conversations within the DOD, and identified parties who believe that your innovation can truly solve a pain point for them.

Final Advice

The Department of Defense may have one of the largest innovation budgets, but the opportunities also come with unique challenges. Founders who are looking to submit a DOD SBIR grant application in 2023 should ensure they have included each of the distinctions we’ve discussed today in their strategy to have the best chance at securing an award.

So with that, I hope you have found this article helpful as you prepare to embark on a DOD SBIR grant proposal. If there are any other questions you might have about securing SBIR awards from the DOD, leave them in the comments below!

For more on SBIR/STTR grants and non-dilutive start-up funding, check out our collection of resources at KeepYourEquity.Co and subscribe to our Youtube channel!

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