Tips For Communicating with SBIR/STTR Program Managers at Federal Agencies

June 4th, 2014 by Rebecca Norman

Once a potential applicant has found a topic match within a Small Business Innovation Research or Small Business Technology Transfer solicitation, the next key step is to engage the agency program manager associated with the topic area. Here’s why: This person can tell you if the agency considers your project idea to be a strong match for the topic and thus a candidate for award funding.

Locate the SBIR/STTR program managers for each of the participating federal agencies through the respective agency SBIR/STTR websites, listed here.

Most SBIR/STTR agency program managers are quite open to communicating with potential applicants. Often, they will offer helpful feedback that entrepreneurs and researchers can use to decide whether or not to proceed with developing SBIR or STTR proposals. The program managers receive hundreds of proposal applications to review each solicitation cycle; therefore, they don’t want to add to that number any proposals that don’t match the solicitation topic or show significant promise.

Communicating with the program manager before submitting a proposal may benefit you down the road, too. For instance, when the agency’s review committee is considering all submissions, if the program manager is familiar with your proposal, he/she may be able to address any issue the review committee raises about your project idea.

So, then, what is the best way to initiate communication with agency program managers within the SBIR/STTR program?

In working with small business clients for the past ficw years, I’ve found that a best practice for initiating communication with agency program managers is to share a concept paper summarizing your idea and to request their feedback on it.

The concept paper summary should be brief – a 200-word concise description of your proposed proof-of-concept research project and its potential impact for the end-user market. As a general rule, brand-new applicants start in Phase I of the SBIR/STTR program, during which time the goal is to prove feasibility of a concept within the standard constraints of a $150,000 budget and a six-month project performance period. Here’s the template for creating this concept paper:

For $150,000 and 6 months, I will prove the feasibility of X. To prove the feasibility of X, I have to answer 3-5 questions (list these questions). When we have proven the feasibility of X, the significance to the world will be Y.

In the concept paper, “X” is the hypothesis that your project team intends to prove in your Phase I research project. When writing out your research questions (which naturally will lead to associated tasks in a full proposal), be sure to quantify with numbers rather than adjectives whenever possible. Doing so will help to demonstrate to the funding agency that your team has a well-thought-out plan.

The last sentence of your concept paper is the significance statement. The “Y” in your significance statement provides a measurable indication of the expected impact that your company’s final product or service will have for the end consumer, who is currently having to use alternative solutions to address the problem.

Once the concept paper is finalized, you should email it to the agency contact. Make the subject line for the email a call to action, such as “Request for Feedback on SBIR Project for Topic X.” Start the message by briefly introducing yourself and your company, then express your interest in preparing a proposal that responds to the agency contact’s topic area. Next, copy and paste the concept summary straight into the body of the email so that the reviewer doesn’t have to take an extra step of opening an attachment.

Close your message by requesting that the program manager review the proposed concept and provide feedback on 1) how well the research questions align with the topic area and 2) whether or not the proposed idea would be considered for award under the topic area.

Sometimes agency program managers may respond with fairly “boilerplate” information, even if you make a point to request specific feedback. In such cases, it may be worthwhile to request a brief conference call with the agency contact, so that there is more opportunity to fully explain the concept and gather more detailed insights.

Keep in mind, direct communication with the agency program manager may be restricted for periods of time. These periods are clearly stated by the respective agencies.

ASBTDC regularly hosts live webinars led by different agency program managers. For a sampling, see some of the archived webinars on our YouTube channel.

Arkansas-based companies are encouraged to engage me at rxnorman@ualr.edu or 501.683.7700 for assistance with concept paper development.