The following proposal writing tip was provided by Gail & Jim Greenwood. Past SBIR proposal writing articles written by the Greenwoods are available on the Greenwood Consulting Group, Inc. (GCGI) web site at www.g-jgreenwood.com
SBIR Proposal Writing Basics: To Submit or Not Submit Under the Joint Agency Robotics Solicitation
Copyright© 2010 by Greenwood Consulting Group, Inc.
Many of you are aware that a solicitation/funding opportunity announcement (FOA) has been issued for a joint agency SBIR initiative on the broad topic of “Robotics.” You can see the full announcement at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PAR-10-279.html which, you will note, has been issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Along with NIH, participating parties include the SBIR programs at National Science Foundation (NSF), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These agencies are requesting robotics related Phase 1 SBIR proposals by December 20, 2010.
SBIR 2.0 – What is it?
Where did this joint solicitation come from? It is a “pilot” effort, under the Small Business Administration (SBA) “SBIR 2.0” initiative. What is SBIR 2.0? No one outside of the government seems to know–people I’ve spoken with in the private sector had not heard of it, so it does not appear to be “market driven” by SBIR companies or their representatives like the Small Business Technology Council (SBTC). You can see more on SBIR 2.0 at http://www.sba.gov/sbir2/. You will learn it is a “series of improvements…to increase the effectiveness and efficiency” of the SBIR program. Please take a look at the upcoming changes and make your own judgment whether they are improvements: personally, we are disappointed to read about creation of a “one stop shop” web site where you can find all 11 SBIR agencies’ topics and a search engine–you probably recognize that is already available on the SBIR Gateway at zyn.com, so we hope SBA is not planning to create a website that competes with that private sector service.
So the purpose of this joint agency robotics solicitation, per the SBIR 2.0 website, is to “encourage agencies to work together to streamline topics for applicants and address national priorities.” The joint robotics solicitation says its purpose is “to highlight trans-agency efforts around broad topic areas supported under…SBIR…and to coordinate with broader Administration initiatives around national priorities (e.g., robotics, etc.).” Okay…. We’re not clear what that all means, but let’s assume you are a small business with innovative robotics technology: should you participate in this joint agency robotics solicitation? We do not think there is an easy answer, because we think you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Let us explain.
Damned if you do…………
As we said earlier, this pilot joint solicitation is being issued by NIH. It should come as no surprise, then, that any proposals submitted in response to this special solicitation must comply with all the typical requirements for an SBIR proposal submitted to NIH. For those of you who might be coming from the world of DOD or DHS, you are going to be subjected to the mandatory proposal electronic submission process known as grants.gov, which is easily the most difficult, convoluted, idiosyncratic, and painful submission process used by any Federal agency. Just to give you a feel for the world you are entering: the NIH handbook to guide you through the grants.gov submission process is 235 pages long. The process of registering your company and your PI on grants.gov can take weeks (if not months), and you also must register on NIH’s eRACommons website. NIH recently instituted an abbreviated (7 page) SBIR proposal format for Phase 1 which, yes, your proposal must comply with. Resumes must be put in a standard NIH format (which emphasizes academics), and there will be room for no more than a paragraph or two in your proposal about the important subject of commercialization. AND, your proposal (even if it is aimed at DOD, NSF, USDA or DHS) will go through the NIH proposal review process, using outside peer reviewers in Scientific Peer Review Groups (SRGs), which will render your proposal a single score under NIH’s new scoring system. You need to include, by the way, a cover letter if you were submitting your proposal to one of the non-NIH agencies, to ensure that NIH will send it over to them for funding consideration.
Even if you are an NIH aficionado and already expert in all the nuances of this agency’s SBIR program and proposal process, we have some bad news for you: unlike standard NIH grant submissions, you will not be able to resubmit an unfunded proposal under this joint agency Phase 1 SBIR robotics solicitation. Nor can you request more than $100k, which is a serious limitation for those of you accustomed to being able to request on an NIH grant whatever funding amount is needed to accomplish your Phase 1 aims and work plan. And this joint solicitation does not have multiple due dates like the standard NIH SBIR grant program: either you submit on December 20th or you go home.
But wait, there’s more: that $100k cap on Phase 1 proposals under this joint solicitation is far below the norm at NSF of $150k–this special joint solicitation would seem to be imposing a 33% penalty on someone wanting to submit a proposal under the joint solicitation versus the “regular” NSF SBIR solicitation. It appears there is a sizable, 9 to 10 month period envisioned for a decision and action on your proposal (proposals due Dec 2010, start date expected Sept 2011). But even worse: the joint solicitation is emphatic that you cannot submit “similar” proposals with “essentially the same research focus.” You also cannot submit an idea here that you have submitted under “any other federal funding opportunity, including each participating agencies’ general SBIR and STTR solicitations.” Basically, you have one chance to submit a winning proposal here. This is a very unfair and unfortunate feature of the joint solicitation, as it is common practice (and smart strategy) to submit the same basic project to multiple agencies that have relevant topics, with the hope that one will fund it. We have no debate with prohibiting accepting multiple awards for the same proposed research, but it is unreasonable to restrict small businesses from submitting duplicative proposals.
Damned if you don’t………
So we’ve made a pretty strong case AGAINST submitting your robotics related proposal under this pilot joint SBIR Phase 1 solicitation. What is the downside of not submitting?
- First, if anytime soon you try to submit a robotics-related proposal to an agency participating in this joint solicitation, and the project is deemed (in the eyes of the reviewer) to fall under one of the pilot solicitation topics, then that reviewer is going to want to know why you did not submit through the joint solicitation (two possible explanations you might offer: the $100k limit was too restrictive to prove feasibility of your innovation, or you discussed your innovation with the SBIR program managers for this joint solicitation and they said it was not a good fit). You will need to work that explanation into your proposal, and hope the reviewers agree it is reasonable.
- Second, if your expertise is robotics, you could experience a “dry spell” in terms of robotics topics from any of the agencies participating in the joint solicitation. In these tough economic times, and with all the technology challenges we face, it would be too bad for you to have reduced opportunity to participate in SBIR until this initiative fades away. Note, by the way, this is a real downside to issuing topic-specific, joint agency SBIR solicitations like this one: in the normal pattern of solicitations, agencies are coming out with topics virtually around the calendar, so there is a pretty good chance you will see a topic related to your area of technical interest at any time of year. When a single topic solicitation is issued by multiple agencies, then once the due date has passed, there will be a scarcity of such topics (or interest in funding them) for a period of time.
- Third, when someone comes up with a new initiative like the current joint agency Phase 1 solicitation on robotics, there is great hope and anticipation among the participants (and the instigator, presumably SBA in this case) that it will be wildly successful. If it isn’t, then they have egg on their faces. Therefore, if you are a robotics company, and you don’t participate in this pilot project, you may be seen as not helping out the folks at these agencies with whom you have a good relationship (and would like to keep it).
Greenwoods’ Suggestions To You:
If you find a Phase 1 SBIR robotics topic that falls outside of this joint solicitation, then hopefully you are not really affected and can go forward “business as usual.”
If you submit a proposal in the not-so-distant future that might appear to a reviewer to have been appropriate for this joint solicitation on robotics, then you need to explain in your proposal why you chose not to submit through the joint agency solicitation.
If you see a topic in this joint solicitation that looks good for you, and if you can cope with the headaches and limitations of this pilot program (and if you are willing to go through NIH’s review process when you are responding to a topic by NSF, DOD, USDA or DHS), then we recommend that you consider submitting a proposal. There is a possibility that relatively few proposals will be submitted given the headaches this one presents (and given it has not been very well publicized to the SBIR community), which increases your chances of success. Also, for the reason mentioned above, the agencies and SBA are anxious for success in this initiative, so they might jump on your proposal in a heartbeat if it is a good one.
Greenwoods’ Suggestion To SBA:
The old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies here. We fail to see how this pilot joint agency solicitation solves any priority problem of the SBIR program, or how it improves its “efficiency or effectiveness.”
Gail and Jim Greenwood may be reached at the following address:
Greenwood Consulting Group, Inc.
Sanibel, FL 33957
(239) 395-9446 (voice & fax)