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The Top 3 SBIR Application Mistakes: Advice From an SBIR/STTR Reviewer

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

The SBIR application process is complicated. To make matters even more complex, it’s often the small technical details that make the difference between applications that receive SBIR funding and those that don’t. In this blog, we are going to look at the top three SBIR application mistakes and how to avoid them.

In addition to writing SBIR proposals for 100’s of clients for 10 years, I have also had the privilege of being an SBIR reviewer for the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation for several years in addition to securing millions of SBIR grant funding for startups across the nation.

In my role behind the scenes of the SBIR grant process, I have spent countless time reading and reviewing huge stacks of SBIR applications. I’ve also spent hours and hours in sessions with other reviewers as we discuss applications before advising federal agencies whether or not each one should receive funding based on our professional opinions.

From this experience, I have learned exactly what reviewers are looking for in a successful SBIR application and the most common mistakes that result in rejection. With that being said, let’s get started so you know exactly what to avoid in your own SBIR application.

Mistake #1 - There are Not Enough Technical Details

In most SBIR/STTR applications, the start-up must propose a research and development (R&D) strategy that lays out exactly what they would do with the funding. A big mistake many start-ups make is that they do not include enough technical details when describing their R&D strategy.

Only vaguely describing your plan gives reviewers the impression that you are not confident in the steps to reach a successful outcome and/or that you aren’t an expert in your proposed subject.

For example, I have come across many SBIR applications from companies making a better drug delivery system to treat diseases and cancers. Yet, their Phase I grants fail to describe critical details such as:

  • What type of animal model they are going to use and why their choice makes sense…

  • Whether both female and male animals will be used in the study…

  • How they will accurately collect and report data…

  • How many animals are needed in this study…

Yet, these are such critical aspects that must be articulated in the application so that reviewers know you have thought these steps through. With these details, this would impress the reviewers by showing them you understand how to prove the feasibility, commercial potential, and technical merit.

How To Avoid Mistake #1

So how do you provide the necessary technical details to include in your proposal? When I work with clients to create a strong SBIR application, I like to ask them the following questions about each of the technical objectives in their R&D plan:

  • What are you trying to prove?

  • What experiments do you need to test your hypothesis?

  • How do you specifically go about these studies?

  • How do you analyze your data?

  • What are your expected outcomes?

Hitting all of these key points with great technical detail is one of the keys ways to securing SBIR/STTR funding. SBIR reviewers will be evaluating how well you have thought through these steps, which at the end of the day impacts the final decision of your application.

Mistake #2 - No Specific Measurable Outcomes

The second mistake I see in many SBIR proposals as a reviewer is the lack of measurable outcomes in their R&D strategy. Start-ups fail to describe what a successful outcome looks like. This is an essential piece of any SBIR application because it shows you have a clear goal in mind.

Too many times, I have come across an application that beautifully laid out their technical objective, how they plan to carry out the experiments, and how they plan to collect and analyze the data. But then, they never describe what success or their deliverables look like. The last thing you need is to have reviewers wonder, “do they even know what success looks like?

As the applicant, you might even lose credibility the second a reviewer has this thought.

How To Avoid Mistake #2

To avoid this big mistake, lay out what quantitative and measurable metrics you need to meet to technically validate the feasibility of your technology for the commercial market.

As an example, if you want to do a cell cytotoxicity study to see if your new drug kills cancer cells but not healthy cells, instead of having a measurable outcome be “our goal is to kill most of the cancer cells without killing the healthy ones,” you should rephrase that to “our goal is to reach 95% cell viability of healthy cells compared to the control over a 24-hour period.” Notice that you are setting the quantitative measurable goal of 95% viability within a quantitative and measurable period of time.

Describing your outcome for success this way strengthens your R&D strategy and allows you to clearly convey that you have an end goal that can be proven when you’ve reached it. This gives credibility and confidence to reviewers that you know exactly how to go about your objectives.

Mistake #3 - Why is Your Innovation 'Innovative'?

The third mistake I come across far too frequently is that many start-ups just assume everyone sees why their idea is innovative. Yet, they don’t give any further explanation as to why it’s actually ground-breaking.

I’ve seen many SBIR applications where the team describes their innovation and how it works, but they never explain how it would specifically stand out in the market. This makes it challenging for reviewers to understand your unique value and competitive advantage.

Remember: No one can read your mind!

Your job as the applicant is to remove any “guesswork” and to explicitly give the reviewers the full picture of why your innovation is worth the investment. Ensure you answer key questions like:

  • What is unique and innovative about your technology?

  • Why has no one technically tried to address the solution in the way you are going about it?

  • If successful, how does your innovation stand out in the market?

  • What are your competitors doing, what have they done in the past, and how are you solving that same problem more effectively?

How To Avoid Mistake #3

In addition to focusing on these questions, there are a couple of highly effective strategies I like to use to effectively describe the importance of novel technologies.

The first and easiest is just to start a paragraph with the phrase, “This technology is innovative because...” and then fill it in the blank. Then you can bold and underline that statement so it jumps out more clearly to a reviewer. Another way is to put together a bullet point list and lay out all of the key features that make your technology innovative. Lastly, you can also create a competitive analysis table or chart so the reviewers understand the playing field and how you pair up with your competitors in your industry.

Though these outlines may seem simple, this helps to deliver your message clearly, concisely, and effectively— three things you should achieve in any section of an SBIR application.

Get More SBIR and STTR Small Business Grant Application Tips

At KeepYourEquity.Co, our sole mission is to help small businesses like yours secure funding through federal grant programs without giving away your equity. If you are looking for more tips like these in your start-up funding journey, we are here to help.

No matter where you are in the process, let us show you how our grant-writing experts can save you time and frustration when bringing your innovative idea to life!

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