How to Develop a Successful SBIR/STTR Proposal – Think Like a Reviewer

In November, our Director of Grants, Dr. Jacob Setterbo, was invited to provide SBIR/STTR grant-writing tips at Innovation Louisiana, put on by New Orleans BioInnovation Center. His presentation educated the audience on the inner workings of the review process to help them think like peer reviewers and improve their grant proposals. Example critiques from SBIR/STTR review statements were also provided to demonstrate what reviewers love and hate to see on applications. Here are some tips from that presentation.

At NIH, typically 3 reviewers are assigned to thoroughly review and score each grant proposal. It is important to recognize that these reviewers spend varying amounts of time on each application, have varying levels of expertise, and are primarily professors/academics from research institutions. Consequently, your application should be: 1) well-organized and enjoyable to read (with topic sentences, headings, figures, and tables); 2) understandable to a broad scientific audience (not everyone is an expert on your topic!); and 3) justified with academic literature throughout (reviewers are used to reading scientific papers and academic grants, so be sure to back your claims with scientific citations).

With respect to NIH SBIR/STTR proposals, small businesses most often have problems addressing the Approach and Innovation criteria. For the Approach, one common problem is a lack of quantitative milestones. For example, developing a prototype “that provides superior structural integrity” sounds great, but it does not provide enough information for reviewers to properly assess your application. For example, “structural integrity” can mean many different things – what specific strength/structural measurement will be used? And, what threshold value or percent improvement for that measurement will be considered a success? Ideally, these milestones will be based on clinically significant values backed up by literature.

Another common problem in the Approach is a lack of alternative methods if problems arise, which they will! Again, most NIH reviewers are professors/academics, so they know experiments go wrong or don’t go as planned because it happens to them all the time. They want you to identify the problems that are most likely to arise and one or two alternatives to address those problems. For example, if your drug does not have the desired quantitative effect in the proposed animal model, what will you change? Will you increase the dose? Will you change the dose frequency? Will you try another animal model, or administer the drug in a harsher or less harsh disease model? You must demonstrate that you will not just give up and that you have a reasonable plan to address these problems based on your scientific knowledge.

With respect to Innovation, a common critique/question is what does your proposed product “offer beyond existing products”? Thus, it is very important that you understand all competitors to make a compelling argument on how your product differentiates itself and is more than an incremental improvement. Ideally, your product is very novel and there are no comparable products in the market. However, that is easier said than done. Regardless of the market competition, it is always good practice to have patent protection. Your project will be considered more innovative, the likelihood for commercialization will be increased, and it is simply in your best interest to protect your company’s proprietary assets.