Tips for Engaging Potential Customers for SBIR Projects

September 24th, 2014 by Rebecca Norman

One of the biggest challenges that my clients face when developing Small Business Innovation Research project proposals is successfully engaging potential customers to determine how their ideas can best address critical market needs.

Since a primary goal of the SBIR program is to bring innovative products and services to commercial market, it’s essential that small businesses engage multiple potential customers before even starting to write their proposal applications. On the surface, approaching a potential investor when your product is currently in the concept stage of development may seem daunting. However, this is the best time to have these initial conversations, because the customer can provide insights that help to inform product development.

Expectations regarding early-stage customer conversations can vary by industry, but the initial steps for small companies are similar.

If you don’t already have a direct contact for your potential customer, it will be helpful to engage a local resource such as your Small Business and Technology Development Center to locate key market players. In some cases, these local resources can also assist with introducing the small business and potential buyer.

For example, a small business in the agricultural industry might contact its local Cooperative Extension Service to request contact information for local farmers who may be interested in the product idea. From there, the business may send a brief summary of its project idea to the farmer, explaining how this project could be funded by a grant through the USDA’s SBIR program. The message could close with a request for a follow-up meeting at the farmer’s location to discuss potential implementation of the proposed product at the field site. Once the farmer agrees to meet, the business needs to fully prepare for the meeting by developing a list of questions to ask the farmer.

Questions should address what practices the farmer is currently using to address the problem, associated costs, advantages, and challenges. The business owner then might broadly discuss the proposed SBIR concept and ask what features, specifications, and price point would be required before the farmer would strongly consider adopting the product for use on the farm.

This process of engaging potential customers should be repeated for multiple farmers in order to develop a range of product performance that would be desired across the board for this particular market.

Once relationships with potential customers have been established, the business owner can explain the importance of including strong letters of commercial interest in the SBIR proposal application. When requesting this support letter, make sure that the potential customer understands that investment in the proposed technology is completely contingent upon the business receiving both Phase I and II awards and developing a final product that aligns with their performance requirements.

It is also helpful if you can provide the customer with a template letter that outlines key content to include, which they can then modify accordingly.