5 Tips for Winning NIH SBIR Proposals

In a recent Quick Chat, I talked with Tom Schwei, a financial professional who has more than 25 years of experience working with Wisconsin-based life science companies. At one of these companies – DNASTAR – he helped win and manage more than $15 million in NIH SBIR grant funding. 

But this didn’t happen overnight. When Tom first joined DNASTAR, the company already had profitable operations from product sales. However, the product line was getting a little stale, as he put it.  So, he and his team decided to think about non-dilutive SBIR grants to finance innovation. They struggled a bit with their first proposals, but over time they achieved a 55-60% funding success rate.

Clearly, they learned more than a thing or two about writing successful proposals. Below are 5 best practices Tom shared in our conversation.

  1. Select project ideas strategically. At least several months before the SBIR application due date, sit down with your colleagues – technical and business people – and identify a project that is in line with the long-term direction of the company. Don’t just pick something because it’s cool and techy. Think about your target customers and what will resonate with them. Then get more specific about a few key R&D milestones and aims that will be needed to complete the project.
  • Think about the proposal as a sales process. In the case of SBIR funding, think about the NIH (and other agencies) as an investor that is looking for a potential return on investment in the project. You are trying to convince the reviewers that your idea has merit and that it will impact the world in a positive way. You are also trying to demonstrate that you have the right company, team and business model to successfully take the idea to market. Don’t overdo it though. You need to be credible and reasonable in your claims and projections.
  • Talk with the program manager/officer. In Tom’s words, “I was shocked at some of the things that could be accomplished through working with the program manager in a very effective way.” Over time, the company doubled its SBIR funding success rate, and Tom credits feedback from program managers as the biggest contributor to that improvement.
  • Communicate with your team. Beyond picking the project idea, it is important to proactively engage with your team throughout the proposal writing process. Schedule regular meetings to make sure everyone contributing to the proposal is on the same page and things are on track. With this approach, the output should be a cohesive document where there is consistency between the research plan and the commercialization plan. 
  • Make the proposal a compelling and interesting read. Remember these proposals are dense documents and the reviewers are human beings. You want to hold their attention while making a case for your project. Don’t be afraid to include tables, graphs, photos, and even white space, to help articulate your vision. One best practice that became part of Tom’s formula for success was to shine a spotlight on the letters of support (it’s critical to have these, by the way) in a narrative within the commercialization plan. Drawing attention to the key people from different fields who endorse the project provides compelling evidence of value.

There’s more to learn from Tom. In our Quick Chat, he dives deeper on these tips and talks about specific sections within the NIH Commercialization Plan. Check it out.

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