Monday, February 10, 2014

10 Suggestions for a Winning SBIR Proposal

Over the last 10 years or so, I have reviewed grants for a number of federal agencies, notably NSF, USDA, and FDA.  Most recently, I have been participating on various review panels for NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding about once or twice a year.  If you are not familiar with SBIR grants, they are awarded by nearly every federal funding agency to small businesses (fewer than 500 employees) for innovative technical concepts to help bridge the gap from proof-of-concept to commercialization.  Often there is a university-based partner where the idea originated or who is helping with a particular aspect of the research.

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all the nuances of the SBIR program.  However, my experience reviewing scores of proposals has taught me a few lessons about what is likely to get, or not get, funded.  Most of the proposals I have looked at have been Phase I (6 months and $150,000) in the topical areas of chemical and biological sensors, but I think many of these lessons will apply to other proposals as well.   If you work for a small business soliciting funding in this program, or you are an academic researcher looking to kick-off a new business venture with an investment from Uncle Sam, pay close attention.
  1. Include some preliminary data, any data, even if it is not yours, in the proposal.  I know that preliminary data is downplayed in SBIR proposals, compared to standard NSF or NIH grants; however, it is important to present some information to show that your concept is not just a cocktail napkin doodle.  By the way, simulations can augment experimental data but cannot replace it.
  2. Provide a detailed description of the device, its materials, and how it will be fabricated.  Every sensor has both receptor (how the target analyte is picked out of the sample) and transducer (how this recognition is converted to a usable signal) components.  Make sure you adequately describe each, even if you are using standard receptors such as antibodies.
  3. Make sure the fabrication has a pathway to manufacturing.  If you have an elegant concept that can only be demonstrated in the laboratory, you are not ready to submit an SBIR proposal.  There must be a product that comes out of this sometime down the road.
  4. Show a basic understanding of the characteristics and parameters of importance in your application area.  If you are going to claim that your device will beat all the competition by orders of magnitude in sensitivity, you must also address the effects on selectivity.
  5. Write your research plan with sufficient detail.  Describe how you will do the experiments, what are the samples and how many, how you will collect and analyze the data, what are the expected outcomes, and what alternative approaches exist in case of problems.  Also, in my opinion, developing your plan for Phase II should not be part of your Phase I effort.
  6. Create a research team with diverse expertise.  If you are an electrical engineer who has developed a new sensing widget which you plan to use to detect cancer biomarkers, you should have someone on your team with experience in biochemistry or clinical medicine.
  7. Have letters of support from potential collaborators, commercial partners, and customers. The more letters you have indicating what a great idea this is, how much they look forward to working with you, and what a need this fills in their specific market, the better.
  8. Make the figures big enough to read the axis labels.  This may be obvious, but you would be surprised by how many people try to save space with tiny figures and then leave some of the 15 page limit unfilled.
  9. Don’t spend so much ink on commercialization plans.  Maybe other reviewers look at this more carefully than I do, but for me it is more important to read the details of your technical description and research plan so that I am satisfied of your capability to do the work.  If a reviewer is not convinced of your technical competence, it will not matter how much revenue you plan to earn.
  10. Create a budget and time commitment that is reasonable for the limited funding and project length.  It is good to be ambitious, but most reviewers are also researchers who know when you have bitten off more than you can chew.  Also, while you would like to keep all the funding to pay your own salary, it is much more believable if you diversify the budget to pay a team of researchers with specific roles, rather than putting the entire burden on one individual.
This top-ten list is certainly not exhaustive, and you should also follow any specific suggestions of the agency or program to which you are applying.  Nevertheless, I recommend that you follow these guidelines when applying for SBIR grants. While it’s no guarantee that you will receive funding, it’s a good place to start.

Friday, January 3, 2014

2013: A Year in Review

Happy New Year to all.  As is typical, this is the time in the calendrical cycle when we look forward to a brand new and unsullied 12 months in front of us which allows us to make resolutions (or revolutions if you have seen the latest ATT TV ad) about changes in our habits and behavior.  It is also the time when we look back at the year just past, to recognize the achievements that help us believe that the human species is making progress.

The world of nanotechnology is no exception, and a good compendium of popular (not necessarily synonymous with significant) news stories from 2013 can be found at Nanowerk.

Here at Georgia Tech, and specifically at the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN), we witnessed a number of noteworthy developments and achievements.  In no particular order, here is the best of IEN 2013:
  1. Significant new funding and investment was obtained by IEN user companies Suniva, Lumense, and Axion Biosystems.  Additionally, new companies Immucor, Clearside Biomedical, Hoowaki and Clopay Plastic Products, among others, joined the IEN user community.
  2. IEN Senior Research Engineer Devin Brown won the Grand Prize in the EIPBN 2013 photomicrograph contest.
    Blue Sun Flower, Devin Brown
  3. IEN held its First Annual USER (User Science and Engineering Review) Day, highlighting the research achievements of our more than 700 users.
  4. The GT-NNIN Education and Outreach Office was nominated as STEM Education Award Finalist by the Technology Association of Georgia.
  5. The IEN got company among the Georgia Tech Interdisciplinary Research Institutes (IRI) with the birth of the Institute for Materials (IMAT) and the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines (IRIM).
  6. IEN co-hosted the Southeast Regional Energy Symposium (SERES).  See yours truly examining one of the student demonstrations.
  7. Significant progress was made on construction in the Marcus Nanotechnology Building, with completion of two laboratory floors (devices and biomedical) and the cleanroom staff office, initial work on the imaging and microscopy suite, and design of the final lab floor (materials).  The IEN's physical space was accompanied by a new virtual presence as the IEN website was launched.
  8. IEN initiated a Seed Grant Competition.  This program was created to identify new, currently-unfunded research ideas that require student cleanroom access to generate preliminary data necessary to pursue other funding avenues.  I promise a fuller blog post about this program later.
  9. Research progress was made by numerous IEN faculty members, including Dennis Hess, Younan Xia, ZL Wang, Todd Sulchek, Jud Ready, Ken Sandhage, Andrei Fedorov, and Alan Doolittle, with a spate of reports appearing in October and November.  You can see most of these in posts on our Facebook or LinkedIn pages.
  10. The IEN celebrated the long and prestigious career of Prof. James Meindl (MiRC and NRC Director) who retired in June.  We also witnessed the departure of IEN founding director Prof. Mark Allen as he moved to the University of Pennsylvania.  Finally, we welcomed Prof. Oliver Brand who took over as Interim Director while a national search for a new IEN Executive Director takes place.
Here’s to hoping that 2014 brings us all continued progress, success and happiness.