SBIR Proposals That Stand Out in the Crowd: 7 Golden Rules

This is not a rigorous treatise on proposal writing or Grantsmanship 101.  I assume you know how to read a solicitation and follow the proposal guidelines.  In fact that would be Rule Zero – Read and Follow the agency Proposal Guidelines to the letter.

Instead, here are just a few things I suggest you remember, check, and double-check.  A reviewer’s first impressions are hard to overcome.  Following these Rules will help make a good impression.

Rule : Clarity – Be Crystal Clear about Everything – The first rule of proposal writing or any writing for that matter is Clarity.  That should go without saying and should be obvious to everyone.  But apparently it isn’t.  I have reviewed hundreds of proposals that I can’t figure out what is the idea and why anyone cares about it until several pages in, or perhaps never at all.  Or how the research will be conducted by whom.  Or confusing jargon and acronyms.  You can’t convince anyone of anything if they don’t understand.  Confusion in the first few paragraphs will color the reviewer’s impression of the entire proposal.  Don’t assume reviewers know anything about the field and idea you have worked on for years.  Start out simple, then get more complex.  Give no reviewer the opportunity to be confused.  This should go without saying, but it must be said repeatedly: The first rule of proposal writing is Clarity.

Rule : Support every claim – Every claim or assertion, every statement you make needs to be backed up with something, a piece of data, a graph, an argument, a reference, a quote from a credible source.  During a review I find myself saying often: “how do they know that?”  Don’t let reviewers think that, but anticipate this question and provide the backup in your narrative.

Rule : Focus on Outcomes not Activities – I read Aims or Objectives that read like open-ended activities or studies.  The more you can focus on the outcomes to be achieved and not just the activity to be conducted, the stronger your proposal will be.  Don’t say you are studying this or optimizing that without being clear “to what end?”  Focus, focus, focus on outcomes and not activities

Rule : Solve a Problem – Again just studying or optimizing something is not very interesting unless it is solving a serious problem that someone, and preferably a lot of somebodies care about.  What problem does this solve, and who cares, and why?  SBIR projects may advance science but that is not the primary objective.  The objective is to solve a problem in a way that is commercially and societally significant.

Rule : Show Measurable, quantified milestones – Don’t just state what you propose to do but be very specific about the measurements you will make to prove that it works, and the success criteria you will use to judge whether feasibility has been definitively established.  Think about the evidence you would produce in a court of law to prove your case.  And your technology can’t just work on a technical basis, it has to work in a way that sustains a profitable business model, i.e. commercially viable.

Rule : Spell Out5 Factors of Significance – There always needs to be a compelling argument for the Significance of your proposed solution, whether the particular agency calls it Significance, or Intellectual Merit, Societal Benefit, or some other terminology.  You can make a compelling case if you can argue Significance in 5 ways.  First there is the Size of the Problem.  Then the Size of the Opportunity, i.e. how much of the Problem can your technology impact?  Next there are the advantages of your approach compared to the alternatives, how your technology overcomes the shortfalls of the alternatives, and the benefits to the users of your technology.  Not just the features that you think make it special, but the benefits and value proposition that customers derive from your proposed solution.  Fourth is the aggregate impact to the economy, public health, society, or whatever aggregate impact you can show that makes your solution especially significant.  Lastly, address the Commercial Merit of your proposed technology solution, showing that there is a reasonable path to commercialization.  These 5 factors together make up the Significance.

Rule : Organize/Highlight to clearly address the review criteria – Make it easy for the reviewer to assign good scores for each of the specific review criterion.  Even if they like your proposal, they still need to write down scores for all the various selection criteria, so don’t make them dig for it.  A low score on any criterion can drop you below the pay line.  Make it easy for the reviewer to write down a good score by organizing your document to highlight this information.  This can be done by organizing the sections or creating subheadings, or making lists, underlining, bolding, etc.  In one proposal I actually made a Table of all of the listed factors that the solicitation highlighted as significant and next to it wrote a summary of how the proposal addressed this factor completely.

I could go on and in our SBIR Training Workshops we do provide much more how-to guidance and tips.  So contact us and let us help you with your next SBIR application.

-Dave Linz, CTC