Updated 2/10/2020 to correct an acronym description.
Given the nature of many of my customers–small aerospace firms–it’s probably not too surprising that I write or edit a lot of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR, pronounced ess-bee-eye-are) proposals. SBIRs are competitive programs wherein the U.S. Government provides seed money to help a small business develop a new technology in a specific area to help them bring it from a lower-level technology readiness level (TRL) to a higher one and, eventually, to the commercial market. The following advice is for engineers as well as tech writers, so feel free to pass this along.
Most SBIR requests for proposals (RFPs) have two or three phases. In Phase I, the company is typically doing research, as the concept they’re developing is so new there’s not even a way to turn it into a concrete produce (hardware or software) yet. All you’re doing in Phase I is establishing the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial merit of your proposed idea with the specific government agency issuing the SBIR as the customer. The proposed work–usually a technical study–takes six months to complete and the award is less than or equal to $150,000.
In most of the Phase II proposals I’ve seen, the company is describing a demonstration model of some sort. The work lasts up to two years and could be awarded as much as $2 million.
In rarer cases, an SBIR will go into a Phase III effort, where the small business works to translate their government-focused widget into a commercial product. The government does not actually fund Phase III, though some agencies may help a small business commercialize their product through other funding.
There is another type of proposal in this field as well called the STTR (for Small Business Technology Transfer Research). These are awards given to companies that team up with a non-profit research institution, such as a laboratory or an academic institution. The primary rule is that the small business prime contractor must perform at least 40% of the work while the research institution must perform at least 30% of the work. The goal here is to facilitate quicker transfers of pure research activities into products in the real world. Most of the work I’ve done has been in the SBIR realm, where a single company is doing the work, so that’s where I will focus.
The government’s SBIR site provides its own bits of insight into how to write proposals for this program, and I encourage you to read it. What follows are some of my thoughts when turning out these documents.
1. Have a product or idea in mind before the RFP comes out
The SBIR opportunities typically come out once a year–for example, NASA’s SBIR window of opportunity is open from November to January, with contracts awarded in April. This gives you a predictable time of year to start gathering ideas. Ideally, your team has been coming up with ideas and doing some of the pre-writing of how their idea(s) will work before it’s proposal-writing season. It’s not that they should have all of the writing done before the proposal comes out, but it makes life easier for everyone if you’re not making up everything on the fly. Of course that happens, too, as more people besides the original inventor get involved. Still, it’s good to have a brainstorming session with the team before the RFP hits the streets.
2. Have a definite product outcome in mind
Phase I usually doesn’t involve creating a product, but simply developing a study that will lead to a concrete product that can be demonstrated in Phase II. These proposals fund specific, applied research on a designated product, not basic research where you’re not certain of the outcome.
3. Know your industry
Part of your proposal will include some sort of “literature review,” where you describe what work has been done on your topic previously. Once you know what’s been done, you’re free to get creative about what hasn’t been tried before and what you can do that’s new.
4. Advance the state of the art
As I noted up front, the “I” in SBIR is for Innovation. That means you should be advancing the state of the art in your particular field and doing something new that makes a dramatic performance improvement. By contrast, you would not do an SBIR proposal for something like nuts and bolts unless your approach was unlike anything seen in the industry before. You’re working more on the middle range of the TRL scale, ideally TRL 3 or 4 so that by Phase II you’re able to demonstrate some sort of working model or “breadboard” prototype of your product. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) organization is geared for ideas still in the theoretical stage, like “warp drive” or equivalent ideas.
5. Solve a problem with specific customers in mind
As I mentioned Monday, you want to have a specific customer in mind when you’re coming up with your bright idea. Multiple agencies put out SBIR solicitations; and within NASA and the Department of Defense–my most common customers–there can be specific groups within those agencies seeking proposals for particular technology areas. Obviously, then, you need to start with that specific government customer. From there, you need to give some thought to:
- Who else within that particular department or agency could benefit from your widget?
- What other government agencies would benefit from your widget?
- How could your widget be used in a commercial environment, and who would be most likely to use/benefit from it?
6. Verify that your organization can do the work
It’s one thing to have a bright idea, it’s another to have the skill set(s) needed to get the job done. You need to identify what types of tasks must be done to achieve your goal and then verify that you or other people in your organization have those skills. If not, you might need to do a little subcontracting, either from academic institutions or another small business (you can’t call up your local Big Aerospace company–that would sort of defeat the purpose of the work being done by small businesses, right?).
7. Have a realistic plan
In addition to having the right skill sets to do the work, the work itself should be well thought out. You must identify your project’s outcomes, how long the work will take, who will be needed to do the work, and how much the work will cost. In short, you have to show the government what they’ll be getting for their money. NASA, DoD, and other agencies don’t just give out money to small businesses to keep people employed: they have problems they want solved, and they want to know that at the end of your work, they will receive something that shows if their problem is solvable.
SBIRs are very competitive, so it’s best not to count on them as a primary source of income for your company. These are meant to fund your in-house creative ideas. With all that in mind–good luck and do great things!