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Course 2: Tutorial 13: Part 3 Proposal Prep 2

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This is the second in a series of six tutorials designed to help potential applicants prepare a proposal to submit to the USDA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. This series assumes that you have a full 12 weeks between the time the Request for Application is released and the due date for the application. If you are late in getting started, please consult a service provider in your area for guidance. A list of service providers by State can be found on the SBIR.gov website.




This tutorial focuses on weeks three and four of the proposed schedule. Having confirmed the appropriateness of a topic with the National Program Leader in weeks 1 and 2, it is now time to start drafting the Project Narrative. This is the most important section of the application and will be addressed in stages over the next few weeks. An outline for the Project Narrative is included in the RFA and a simplified version of that outline can be found in the Tools section of this tutorial in Microsoft Word format. It’s important that you follow the outline exactly. This practice makes it easier for busy reviewers to find pertinent information and also helps you assure that you have addressed all requested content. Ultimately the Project Narrative will be no more than 17 pages long, if this is your first application. However, we’re not going to worry about length right now – but instead focus on the content and the quality of your thoughts. We can reduce the number of words later.


Section 1 of the outline is reserved for those that are REsubmitting a proposal. We will skip that section as my assumption is that you are a first-time applicant. Let’s start with section 2 - “Responsiveness to USDA NIFA SBIR Program Priorities”.


In order to demonstrate that your proposal is responsive to the USDA NIFA SBIR Program Priorities – you must first understand what those priorities are. So before you begin to write, its recommended that you spend some time learning about the priorities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A number of key documents are mentioned in the RFA, including the USDA Strategic Goals and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Strategic Plan. The specific Strategic Goals with which the USDA SBIR program is aligned are clearly identified.




There are two additional areas to which you should pay attention – referred to as cross-cut areas. These are:

  • Agriculturally-related manufacturing technology, and
  • Energy efficiency and alternative and renewable energy
These could have relevance in any of the topic areas listed in the RFA. However, these are not meant to be standalone topics. If the topic you select involves manufacturing or energy efficiency and alternative and renewable energy, you are encouraged to mention these cross-cut areas in this opening section. In addition to these broad priorities, within each of the numbered Topic areas, 8.1, 8.2 etc. USDA has listed research priorities for that fiscal year, as well as other Key Information.




Armed with this information, you can now start to write the section entitled “Responsiveness to USDA NIFA SBIR Program Priorities”. Introduce your research interest and in a couple of short sentences call out the topic number and the research priority that you are addressing. Add a statement related to the NIFA strategic plan and if appropriate, mention one of the cross-cut areas. Now, if you do mention agriculturally-related manufacturing technology or energy efficiency and alternative and renewable energy, be sure to provide an explanation describing in what way the cross cut area is relevant.


Next begin to prepare the Section 3 entitled “Identification and Significance of the Problem or Opportunity”. This section is very important. When reviewers leave this section, there should be no doubt in their minds what problem you are addressing and why it is important. To provide you with some ideas about how to approach writing this section, take a look at two or three abstracts from recent USDA SBIR awards. The problem addressed is usually stated in the abstract as well – so ask yourself after reading the abstract if you can readily identify the problem. Now begin to articulate the problem of interest to you. Make sure the problem is clearly stated and that you provide supporting information to indicate why this problem is important. Is the problem prevalent? Is it disruptive? Include some information that indicates the magnitude of the problem.




Although Section 3 won’t be very long – you will spend considerable time playing with the problem statement. You might think about it while having a cup of coffee, driving your car, or taking a walk… Your goal is to develop a clear and substantiated problem statement.


Background and Rationale. Here you begin to lay the foundation for your proposed solution. In other words, your objective is to present information that shows that you understand end-users' needs and can discuss what has been done previously and what gaps exist based on a review of the scientific literature. This can readily be done using “Google Scholar”, a source that is freely available and easily searched. A demo of how to use Google Scholar is included in the Tools section. If you have not used Google Scholar before, try conducting your search with a colleague or friend. You will find this is an enjoyable treasure hunt … that will surface lots of ideas. As part of your application, you will need to develop a list of citations – so while you are doing the literature search, you are also gathering information that will be needed for another part of the proposal – called the Citations.




During Week 3 – we recommend that you offset this creative activity by completing a number of required registrations. USDA requires that you are registered with the SBA Registry, the System for Award Management and Grants.gov in order to submit an application. The most important registration is the System for Award Management, also known as SAM. This is required so that you can get paid by the federal government should you win an award. It takes several weeks for this process to be completed by SAM and you must assure that the process is complete before you can submit a proposal – so take care of it now. As noted previously, it is highly recommended that you work with the Procurement Technical Assistance Center or PTAC in your area in completing SAM. Their guidance is free and it can save you a lot of time and frustration.


During week 3 we also recommend that you revisit a USDA service provider in your area with whom you may be working or a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and ask them to review what you have written for Sections 2 and 3 of the draft proposal. It is always good to get some feedback, while drafting the proposal to assure that you are on the right track.


In week 4 begin to draft the next two sections entitled Relationship with Research or Research and Development and Technical Objectives. I would recommend that you spend time thinking about your Technical Objectives first. In this section, clearly identify the overall goal or objective of the research you propose and then generate a list of technical questions that you will address via your research to establish the technical feasibility of the proposed approach. This information will go in Section 6: Technical Objectives. Once this is complete, then go back and draft section 5. If you have conducted a pilot study and have some preliminary data which supports your hypothesis, mention this as you begin to draft Section 5. In this section you should also clarify what the metrics for success will be that will lay the foundation for a Phase II effort. The balance of section 5 should address the items mentioned in the RFA including (a) technical, economic and social benefits to the nation and users of the results; (b) the estimated total cost of the approach relative to benefits, and (c) any specific policy issues or decisions that might be affected by the results. As you start to consider these items – you will begin to wonder if there is someone with whom you can discuss these questions and may begin to feel like you need more help. In the next Tutorial we will address how to expand your team.


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