1) Its the same as getting private funding
The NSF awards their grants in a very similar vein to how a private venture capitalist would: with a focus on profit and commercialization. NSF seeks to support early stage companies, with clear scalable ideas and a focus on commercialization. The purpose of an SBIR grant is to fund projects that VCs might deem too risky so think of the grant as sort of a de-risker to get a business to the point where it might be seen as appealing for a VC or an Angel to back it. This means that an SBIR grant is perfect for some initial capital to get an idea off of the ground and there is a full expectation for the entrepreneur to graduate from government funding and into private funding which is why there is so much focus on commercialization.
2) Your work has to be technical
The NSF-SBIR program seeks out products and services that are of technical merit. This means R&D, Engineering, and other miscellaneous technical services. The perfect SBIR candidate needs to demonstrate that they have a technical product or service that they need to design and implement. The SBIR is not created to fund knowledge, its created to bridge the gap for early stage entrepreneurs working in high-risk technical industries.
3) Make sure to demonstrate risk
One way to not get an SBIR grant is to not demonstrate high technical risk. If your product is proven, why apply for an R&D grant? Show that your product has potential for commercialization and demonstrate that your idea alleviates a customer-pain - much like what an investor would look for.
4) The team has to be capable of commercialization
Does the team have the ability and desire to aggressively pursue to go after the commercial opportunity? The team has to align with the vision of the product. Your team has to have a great track record for bringing products to market. Even if a product is awesome, a team thats not passionate and driven is not likely to get funding through the SBIR program.
5) The funding has to move the needle.
One reason that SBIR focuses on incredibly early stage startups is that they want to see the usefulness of their funding. There has to be a significant difference between the trajectory your startup has pre-SBIR funding to post-SBIR funding.
6) You dont have to be an expert grant writer
SBIR focuses on startups! The NSF-SBIR team is dedicated to making the application process simple for entrepreneurs, and it is very easy for applicants to connect with them pre-application to clarify any details. You dont have to write a typical grant proposal chock-full of data and business models. However, that doesnt mean that you dont have to build a narrative as to how the SBIR can help you with your startup and what you want to achieve. Its all about storytelling. Collect your thoughts and boil it down to a clear message.
7) Focus on innovation - forget about topics
Most government programs are focused around a topic or a theme for awarding grants. The NSF focuses 100% on innovation. Although they have topics listed in their solicitations, thats only for their internal use to simply classify their review efforts. The entrepreneur has the freedom to choose any tech area where they feel they will make the most technical impact.
8) Dont worry about what SBIR needs
Never will be a case where the government doesnt want your product. Entrepreneurs have the flexibility to figure out how to monetize your opportunity. Licensing? Shipping? Just focus on forging a consistent story that makes sense in your market landscape
9) You can overlap with other agencies.
The NSF is so flexible that you can apply for grants in multiple programs. For example, if youre applying for an SBIR grant but your business can also benefit from a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), then dont worry about the overlap! The NSF wants to make getting funding easy for entrepreneurs, not difficult.
Not only do these tips work for the NSF, but they are also tips to keep in mind when applying to grants in general!
Were very excited to be working with the National Science Foundation in helping entrepreneurs win. Weve had several MassChallenge entrepreneurs benefit from the SBIR program including 2013 Finalist, Calista Therapeutics (through NIH). MassChallenge has found so many synergies with the NSF, and we hope to continue and expand our relationship for years to come!