The National Science Foundation typically publishes two SBIR/STTR solicitations a year. One solicitation is published in March and the other is released in June. Although the SBIR and STTR programs are frequently discussed in tandem, at NSF these are separate solicitations with similar release dates. The SBIR and STTR Phase I solicitations can be downloaded from NSF’s website. The topics and subtopics are available in a separate document. In addition, there are various tools available throughout NSF’s website to assist new applicants.
At the beginning of the NSF SBIR solicitation is a section entitled “Important Information and Revision Notes”. Here NSF mentions that effective March 2019 both SBIR and STTR Phase I proposers to NSF are required to submit a three-page “Project Pitch” that outlines the project’s objectives, technical innovation and associated technical risks. The goals of this new process are to provide specific feedback to potential applicants regarding whether or not their proposed project is a good fit for the program prior to initiating the full proposal submission process and to allow greater agility and flexibility in receiving and evaluating full proposals. To accommodate this new requirement and the subsequent submission of invited full proposals, the NSF SBIR/STTR Phase I program will also offer full proposal submission windows, as opposed to specific deadlines in order to support a more flexible schedule for full proposal submission and review. To submit a full proposal for NSF SBIR Phase I funding, the small business MUST submit a Project Pitch and receive an official invitation (via email) from the cognizant NSF SBIR/STTR Program Director. Please be sure to read in great detail the Important Information and Revision Notes on the first page of this solicitation.
The NSF solicitation guidelines are fairly short – about 20 pages in fact. The guidelines highlight information that you may have seen with other agencies – but there is a very different flavor to the NSF solicitations. NSF is a granting agency and provides considerable latitude to the proposer. It seeks cutting-edge, high-risk, high quality scientific, engineering, or science and engineering education research that will transform scientific discovery into both social and economic benefit.
The topics conform to the investment sector’s interests. NSF clearly states in the topics document that this list should be considered as examples and does NOT represent an exhaustive list of topics and subtopics. The NSF SBIR/STTR programs encourage proposals in all areas of science and engineering. Therefore, an exact fit into one of these topics or subtopics is not required.
Sometimes it may be hard for an individual to determine if the proposed research is truly innovative and if it shows the promise of high commercial and scientific impact. To that end, NSF provides the following guidelines. It is suggested that in formulating your concept and reviewing the scientific and market literature, you ask yourself:
- Has this ever been attempted and/or successfully done before?
- Are there still technical hurdles that the NSF-funded R&D work could overcome?
- Does this project have the potential to disrupt the targeted market segment?- that’s a good thing by the way
- Does the proposed research have good product-market fit as validated by customers? In other words, is there a verified need, and
- Does the proposed project offer the potential for societal impact
In the Award Information section, NSF presents a number of important facts. In the eligibility section it clearly reiterates that the firm must have received an official invitation to submit a proposal from the cognizant NSF SBIR/STTR Program Director. “An organization may submit no more than one SBIR Phase I proposal per full proposal submission window. Submission of an invited SBIR Phase I full proposal to a given submission window precludes the same applicant to the concurrent STTR Phase I solicitation. These eligibility constraints will be strictly enforced. In the event that an organization exceeds this limit, the first proposal received will be accepted, and the remainder will be returned without review.” In this way NSF assures that it can engage a greater number of new applicants. NSF also clarifies that no person may be listed as the principal investigator for more than one proposal submitted to this solicitation. SBIR proposals submitted to NSF, by definition, do not have co-PIs.
NSF provides an interesting list of Do’s and Don’ts in the Proposal guidelines. Here’s a few of the Don’ts. Do NOT submit a proposal which has not yet received an invitation to submit from a cognizant NSF SBIR/STTR Program Director. Proposals without this invitation will be returned without review. Do Not submit a Project Description that is more than 15 pages long. Do not submit a proposal that lacks sufficient intellectual/technical or broader/commercial potential substance to justify review; which does not contain research proposed in science, engineering, or education or is not responsive to the solicitation objectives. Make sure that you only upload documents to the Supplementary Documents section that NSF has identified as being acceptable. One supplemental document that NSF likes and is worthwhile highlighting is Letters of Support for the Technology. Such letters are optional and up to three letters may be submitted. Letters of support should demonstrate that the company has initiated dialogue with relevant stakeholders (potential customers, strategic partners or investors) for the proposed innovation and that a legitimate business opportunity may exist should the technology prove feasible.
The proposal guidelines clarify how NSF proposals are processed and reviewed. As with other agencies there is an administrative review process at the outset to assure that proposals meet NSFs requirements. Those that meet the criteria are carefully reviewed by a scientist, engineer, or educator serving as an NSF Program Officer, and usually by three to ten other persons outside NSF either as ad hoc reviewers, panelists, or both, who are experts in the particular fields represented by the proposal. These reviewers are selected by the Program Officers charged with oversight of the review process. Proposers are also invited to suggest names of persons they believe are especially well qualified to review the proposal and/or persons they would prefer not review the proposal. These suggestions may serve as one source in the reviewer selection process at the Program Officer's discretion. Submission of such names, however, is optional.
When evaluating NSF proposals, reviewers will be asked to consider what the proposers want to do, why they want to do it, how they plan to do it, how they will know if they succeed, and what benefits could accrue if the project is successful. These issues apply both to the technical aspects of the proposal and the way in which the project may make broader contributions. To that end, reviewers will be asked to evaluate all proposals against two criteria: Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge; and Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.
If you are interested in transforming scientific discovery into societal and economic benefit be sure to explore the NSF SBIR and STTR solicitations.