Navigating the SBIR Waters
A look into the SBIR proposal submitting process
05 May 2016By Sean Whitsitt, Senior Sofware Engineer II and Research Leader
The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is a federal program that is meant to encourage domestic, small businesses to contribute to research. Last year, we began applying for an SBIR award and that’s what I would like to tell you about. The SBIR program is funded by 11 federal agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Since I posted my first blog post over a year ago, I’ve hit a lot of my ambitious goals. I’m most pleased with the fact that I’ve been able to begin creating a research and development department tied to SBIR here at Aztera. The SBIR process is highly competitive and requires a lot of work to make it through the first round. Veterans of the program claim that a new company has about a 10% chance of winning an award. Getting awarded is an iterative process of submitting a proposal, receiving feedback, rewriting, and resubmitting the proposal. Lather, rinse, repeat until you succeed.
This adventure began with Eric Smith and myself pouring over solicitations from various agencies. Due to time constraints with our schedules, we decided to go through a mock up what we would do for the proposal in order to figure out how the process would work for us. However, we quickly ran into several problems with that strategy. The first and most important problem was that we had no way to receive feedback for our ideas. After some discussion, we decided to dive head first into the process just to see if we would sink or swim. Agencies are required to submit feedback on a proposal, which allows for a fluent revision process. Eventually, Eric and I found a solicitation that we felt we were qualified to respond to with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The solicitation topic was “Computer Aided Standards Development (CASD) – A Software Tool to Automate the Standards Development Process”. Since I have a strong background in software and computer modeling, this solicitation was the perfect fit.
Our next task was to put the proposal together. Luckily, Eric had been working with the University of Arizona and their Tech Launch Arizona (TLA) program, meaning that we had a lot of contacts that we could use to find the help that we needed. Eric was able to get us a spot at one of the TLA events and I stepped up to do something that I typically dread: networking. Throughout my life I’ve always been a very shy person. I’ve found it difficult to speak to people I’ve met before, let alone a room of complete strangers. However, I’ve also had a lot of practice putting my discomfort aside and doing what needs to be done. So with great trepidation I went to the TLA networking event and spoke to several people. While I spoke to several people, I made one connection that would prove integral to Aztera’s SBIR efforts: Sonia Vohnout.
As a veteran of the SBIR program, Sonia was able to provide us with a lot of knowledge and information that we were able to apply to our application in order to produce a winning proposal. When we began this whole process I felt like we were going to struggle and thought that we would submit several different proposals before one of them was accepted. Sometimes, I still worry that this was a fluke and the next several proposals will be rejected. Sonia is wonderful person that has always managed to make me feel like I am capable of doing things I thought were impossible. Because of her help, I can say that I have much more confidence in my ability to navigate the SBIR waters than when I started the process.
Sonia helped us select a strong team for the project that we wanted to propose to NIST. Even though the project was a good fit for Aztera, there were a few areas in which we were deficient and needed refined assistance. A key fact about an SBIR project is that you can hire outside contractors to assist with the work using about 30% of the funding that you receive.That means that you do not have to have all of the expertise for a project on hand in order to win an award. As long as you contract experts (as opposed to contracting out all of the grunt-level work) then you should do well.
One of the key elements to any SBIR proposal is outside support. This support comes from the potential customers of the product your research would eventually produce. This is one of the most difficult parts of the process. I would have thought that getting individuals to at least say in a letter, “this research is interesting” would be easy, but people are incredibly reluctant to offer that support on an official level. Sonia helped us reach out to several potential customers for letters of support for the project and I think only one of the individuals we contacted through her was able to provide a letter to us. Most of our other letters came from sources that Eric and I contacted. My one comment here is that a shotgun approach to finding support for your project is definitely the way to go.
While we were finding our team and reaching out to potential customers, we began writing the proposal. Sonia was integral to that process and kept us on track to what she knew the reviewers would expect to see out of it. I’m not necessarily good at writing, but this is the part of the process that I think I enjoy the most. By the time we were able to sit down and begin the writing process, we had about four weeks left until the proposal submission deadline. Usually solicitations are released two months before they are due so we had a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. That meant lots of late nights at the office writing, editing, garnering feedback from our internal reviewers, then repeating the process.
The day that the proposal was due, Eric, Sonia, and I camped out in Aztera’s conference room and continued to work on the proposal to make sure every tiny detail was in order. Font size was good, figures lined up correctly, tables were legible and not mangled by Word. Even though we checked it for technical accuracy, I was a bit terrified that we would submit the proposal only to have the automated system that checks for administrative problems reject it. The proposal was due at 5:00 pm ET, three hours ahead of MST in the summer when this proposal was due. At around 1:55 pm MST we submitted the final draft and waited with bated breath for a few hours while the system checked our proposal.The system eventually came back to tell us that everything was in order. We eventually found out that our proposal won and we were awarded for it. It took both a lot of work and a lot of luck to get our first proposal accepted, but that was a nerve racking wait.
You can check out the past awards on the NIST SBIR website to see proof of our success: http://www.nist.gov/tpo/sbir/pastawards.cfm. And if anyone out there has some good research ideas and needs help with them, please don’t hesitate to contact me.