Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants.


Megan: Welcome to All About Grants. I'm Megan Columbus from the NIH Office of Extramural Research. Today we're doing the second in a two-part series looking at small business grants and contracts. Today we're going to be focused on writing a small business grant application. I have with me Dr. Matt Portnoy who's the NIH SBIR/STTR Program Coordinator. Welcome.

Matt: Thank you, Megan.

Megan: Let's just dive right in. Can you talk to us about what makes a small business application different from any other kind of grant application people might be trying to write?

Matt: Sure. Firstly, the small business SBIR and STTR grant applications, in general, look and follow the same regulations for grant applications and peer review guidelines that all of our programs at NIH do, but there are a couple of unique aspects. The grant applications typically need to have a commercialization focus. They need to be focused on developing a technology from feasibility and ultimately with the marketplace in mind. And so that type of a focus in the grant applications needs to be considered.

Megan: Okay, and so you need to be focused on commercialization. The standard review criteria are all going to apply, right, so we're still looking at innovation and investigator and methods and… ?

Matt: That's right. So the five standard review criteria are significance, innovation, approach, investigator, and environment. And these apply to SBIR and STTR grant applications, as well, with the focus on the approach and significance being slightly more on the applied technical commercialization aspect.

Megan: And are there additional review criteria that are also in play here?

Matt: Well, as with all applications, if folks are planning to work on human subjects or animal subjects or biohazards, they have to address those specific concerns in their application. But by and large, the standard five criteria and, in some cases, in some of our solicitations, our institutes may put additional criteria into a targeted solicitation.

Megan: So how would you suggest that a small business owner approach telling their story?

Matt: Well, I think you said it exactly right, they need to tell a story. And as with all of our applications, you don't actually get a lot of room. Our Phase I applications have a six-page limit for the research strategy and the Phase II have twelve page. And so that's not a lot of space to tell how you're going to either do a feasibility study or do full R&D. And so applicants really need to frame their application as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. And ultimately their goal in the end is to rouse our peer reviewers so they believe in the technology that they're funding. Applicants need to make a strong case for the significance of their research and innovation as well as considering how they're going to do it under the approach.

Megan: Are there specific considerations in like the budget section that apply to small business applications?

Matt: Not differently than all of our other mechanisms. It is important to note that small business applications, SBIRs and STTRs, all require detailed budgets. You're not allowed to use the modular budget. So you need to tell us each and every expense and, in the budget justification section, how it's going to be used and applied.

Megan: One of the things I think that's particularly important with the small business community to emphasize is 'the devil's in the details'. none of us like to read the instructions. when we're filling in forms and things, however, in applying for NIH grants, the devil really is in the details and we may not even consider your application if you haven't dotted all your I's and crossed your T's. I'm sure that you would agree that reading the funding opportunity announcement that you're applying for very carefully before you start writing your application and reading the application guide as you go through, is critical.

Matt: That's right. We certainly encourage and you certainly should be reading the funding opportunity announcement or solicitation multiple times before you get started. And while we know that our application guide for SBIRs is over 200 pages long, it frankly has a lot of detail in it and will help you do almost everything but write your research strategy. Additionally, there are a few more concise resources that we have available which we encourage folks to use. There is an annotated form set for SBIR applications that takes the nuts and bolts of what to put in what box in what form on what page and tells you what to put in there. That also helps you do everything but ultimately write your application and all of those resources are available on our website.

Megan: And I think the last one you mentioned is actually particularly important because folks out there should understand that these application forms, many of the forms are written to be used across the Federal Government and so the labels may not be very specific and may not necessarily illuminate what needs to go into those fields. And so cross referencing with the annotated form set with the application guide is really important.

Matt: That's right. And so certainly that can be a great resource. Additionally, a program officer is a great resource; calling a program officer or calling our office and we can forward you to an institute program officer can be a great resource. When you get closer, also calling the NIH eRA Service Desk, they can really help with the technical details if you're getting stuck or you're having to work on a part of the application that you don't understand. They can provide great advice on what to do.

Megan: Absolutely. As I'm writing the application, it's key to keep, uh, the reviewers in mind, the people who are looking at the application and evaluating it for scientific and technical merit. Can you talk to us a little bit about who those reviewers would be for small business applications?

Matt: Sure. Nearly all of our SBIR and STTR applications are reviewed in special peer review panels that only SBIRs and STTRs are reviewed in. So that's important to emphasize first. These are not reviewed in our typical R01-type panels and so they're not competing against those either. Within the SBIR and STTR panels, there's usually a mix of reviewers, some with academic experience and some with industry experience. These are typically going to be principal investigators on already-funded SBIRs and STTRs. And even on the academic side of our reviewer expertise, these are folks who are typically involved in the program as a partner with the small business. So our peer review panels do have expertise that is relevant to small business and relevant to applied research.

Megan: I think it's an important to note that, while these people are very smart people who have experience, they may or may not all know about the area of, , research or developments that your application may be focused on. And so remember, I think, when you're writing the application, that you need to not be writing it for the specialists.

Matt: That's exactly right. As with all of our NIH programs, applicants need to prepare and write their research strategy section such that they can expect that they will have a advanced scientific reviewer reading it, but not necessarily an exact expert in their field. But this is especially important when they write their significance section. -- They need to lay the background of the field, write what they're proposing to do that will make significant advance in the field or propose new technology or an advancement in technology well beyond the current availability.

Megan: And so advice that certainly I've heard many times is, before you submit your application to NIH, give it to other folks who are not directly in your field, to see if they can understand your application and have suggestions for making it more clear.

Matt: That's exactly right. Certainly we encourage anyone to share drafts of their application with their friends or colleagues who have familiarity and experience writing NIH applications. Additionally, another resource available is that many states offer state or not-for-profit level assistance to small businesses to specifically to help them with their SBIR and STTR applications. These are called SBTCs or Small Business Technology Centers or something similar. And you can find a list of them at the central SBA website,, and look under the contacts for state contacts.

Megan: Oh, great suggestion. Are there any other resources that you can think of that—so we know we have, which is NIH's central resource. We know we have the Small Business Administration .gov site, which is the whole Federal Government resource. Anything else that people should know about?

Matt: Well, if you're really interested in getting some ground-level understanding of the programs, coming out to an SBIR conference is certainly encouraged. The government as a whole sponsors one or two national SBIR conferences, what we would call a multi-agency conference, per year. And NIH itself hosts an NIH-only SBIR/STTR conference annually and our next one will be at the end of October2013, and you can go to our website, for details. Additionally, many states and/or regions host annual or semiannual regional SBIR events. One of the important things that we do here is do a lot of outreach. And so we go to states. We go to incubators. We are going to put on ultimately soon webinars and other types of outreach to reach applicants we haven't been able to reach previously including those in states which historically don't have a lot of funding, emphasizing increasing participation from those and in women-owned small businesses and socially- and economically-disadvantaged small businesses as well. We're working on increasing our outreach to all of these audiences as well. So you'll find us around the country and on the Internet.

Megan: Great. You know, so I think in summary, we really need to make sure that people are reading their funding opportunity announcements, reading the application guide, making sure they're fully registered starting at least six weeks before they plan on submitting an application. They should be telling their story in such a way that reviewers who are not experts in their field but are very smart people can understand the application. They need to be potentially vetting their application through colleagues. They need to—and we haven't mentioned this, but I think it's an important point—they need to submit and plan to submit early, like days or even a week early, before the deadline, so that they can make sure that, they track the application because there may be some places where they get errors where they didn't follow the instructions as they needed to, and that'll give them time to fix those errors without getting a late application. Anything else you can think of?

Matt: No. We understand that applying for a federal grant is an exceptionally time-consuming and challenging process. And we've talked about a number of resources available, both locally to the small business—hopefully within their state—and centrally, at the various agencies and within NIH that are available to them. And we encourage applicants to contact us and to avail themselves of all the available resources that will increase their chances of having one, a successful application submission, and two, increase their chances of submitting a highly-meritorious application which will increase their chances of getting funding which is ultimately what they want—and we want—in the end.

Megan: Fabulous. Thanks so much for joining us today, Matt.

Matt: Thanks for having me.

Megan: For NIH and OER, this is Megan Columbus.

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