Step 3: SBIR proposal process – identification & significance

The successful SBIR proposal will identify and explain the significance of the problem.

Do all the following on the first page:

  • Revisit the Problem.
  • Introduce Basis for the Innovation (Solution).
  • Explain How Solution Logically Merges with the Problem.
  • Introduce an Overview of the Technical Objectives – List Specific “Global” Points.
  • Discriminators – Highlight One or Two Thoughts You Really Want to Impress Upon the Reviewer.

Provide a background (context) to the problem and solution.

  • Explain the problem in detail.
  • Explain the innovation in detail.
  • Develop premise of why innovation will work.
  • Discriminators – How have you positioned yourself using preliminary work or data start out “ahead” in this project?

Here is an example of an SBIR proposal background statement:

In the post September 11th environment, homeland defense and overseas tactical operations require a new generation of surveillance platforms. Current technologies do not satisfy all the requirements of today’s security needs. Ground based radar systems are only capable of detecting targets above their horizon line. Targets hiding behind structures or in valleys and ravines can not be detected. Satellite imagery provides a comprehensive view of targets, however, due to the rotation of the earth, these views only last several minutes. Current UAVs can patrol unlimited locations, but are limited in duration of flight to a matter of hours or days. a geostationary, reconfigurable, re-taskable surveillance platform that can stay aloft over a target for up to a year or more and be equipped with 1 optical, radar, and other intelligence surveillance equipment capable of  surveying a 700 mile diameter area. And deployed in the theater to detect XXXX weapons and cruise missile attacks, as well as coordination with command. They can be used to perform border patrol tasks such as detecting drug smuggling operations and terrorist incursions.

Here is an example of an Identification and significance of the problem section:

With terrorist attacks possible within the United States, such as those that occurred on September I Ith. there is an urgent need for continuous surveillance of the US border. High altitude airships (HAAs) will have the ability to loiter above stationary targets at altitudes over 70.000 feet, well above the jet stream and out of range of enemy defenses (Figure I). For HAAs to remain aloft for up to a year at a time, they must have sufficiently sized energy storage systems requiring no refueling. The most promising energy conversion and storage system for HAAs is the combination of photovoltaic (PV) arrays with a regenerative fuel cell energy storage system. This powers the arrays during the day to power electronics, while utilizing excess power to split water with an electrolyzer, generating hydrogen and oxygen at high pressures. At night, the stored hydrogen and oxygen are fed to a fuel cell where they are converted to electricity, allowing the HAA to continue operation.

The electrolyzer has a significant effect on the specific energy (Wh kg) of the overall system, affecting the size of the reactant storage based on its operating pressure, and affecting the size of PV arrays needed based on its operating efficiency. The conditions at which the electrolyzer operates, such as temperature and pressure, can also dramatically affect the electrolyzer’s balance-of-plant mass and parasitic power requirements. Operating at high pressure reduces the amount of water vapor present in the gas phase, reducing and simplifying water knockout systems. The high pressure also allows for operation at high temperature due to the increased temperature for vaporization of water at elevated pressures. The higher temperature increases the efficiency of electrolysis process reducing the size of PY arrays needed. To take advantage of operating at higher temperature and pressure, development of both membrane electrode assemblies and lightweight electrolyzer stack components are needed that can operate at high temperature and pressure. Although there has been much research on high temperature PEM fuel cells, there lias been little focus on high temperature PEM electrolysis, especially at high pressures and with lightweight hardware suitable for flight platforms.

For Phase I, the Center   proposes  to demonstrate the feasibility of an electrolyzer capable of operating at high pressure (>1000 psig) and high temperature (>100 °C). The Center  will contribute to the project by developing the high temperature membrane electrode assembly to be used in an electrolyzer and develop the (lightweight electrolyzer component technology that will he capable of functioning at pressures up to 1000 psig and temperatures greater than 100 and contribute by performing a system-level analysis focusing on the affect of high temperature and high pressure on the system efficiency, weight, complexity, and reliability. Phase I w ill include a demonstration of electrolyzer operation at 1000 psig and a temperature greater than 100 °C leading to a full-size electrolyzer stack development effort in Phase II.

The identification and significance section of the SBIR is your one and only shot at getting the reviewer excited about your proposal.

  • According to JoAnne Goodnight, NIH, “It doesn’t matter how good your approach is, how innovative the idea is, how great the Pl/team is, or how excellent the research facilities are – if what you are proposing lacks significance or has no relevance to the agency mission.”
  • This is the “so what?” test.
  • E.g. How does that work make the world a better place? Who benefits? How does it help the war fighter or deny the enemy? How will this make America more productive?
  • Significance comes in several forms depending on the agency, know the agency that you are writing to…
  • To get all points of significance, answer the following questions: what is the innovation? So What if it Works? What benefit comes from it? Why should anyone care? Why should the reviewer choose your project over another? Why should taxpayer dollars support this effort?

Examples of Significance

  • Social Significance – Makes world a better place, helps people lead happier productive lives, ends hunger or ignorance, etc.
  • Research Significance – enables scientific breakthroughs, gives researchers an important tool, or answers a question that other scientists or engineers need to advance other projects.
  • National Significance – e.g. encourage manufacturers to move to the U.S., help the war fighter, reduce energy consumption, etc.
  • Personal Significance – burning desire to solve a problem that personally impacts the writer.
  • Which Significance is best? Depends on the agency and the SBIR.

Importance to the Agency

In addition to the significance, this section also needs to address importance to the agency receiving your proposal. The innovation has to be significant given the agency’s purpose, mission, or priority. It cannot benefit industry and peripherally benefit the Government. Finally, state clearly the significance of the project, and why it should be important to the agency.


  • You are not addressing a “potential problem.” Agencies see more real problems that they cannot fund because of budget, why would they fund a potential problem?”
  • Many writers assume that the reader can figure out the significance. Writers spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the technical details and nuances and then take a paragraph of two to explain the significance. Reviewers conclude that if you don’t talk about.
  • The innovation has to be significant given the agency’s purpose, mission, or priority. It cannot benefit industry and peripherally benefit the * Government.
  • Don’t regurgitate, word for word, the way the topic author wrote up the problem in the solicitation. You must show a deep understanding of the problem and the impact to agency, society, industry, etc.
  • Don’t introduce 12 things that might be significant with no elaboration on any of them. The reviewer will see lack of focus. There is no magic number (1 – 3) should be a rule of thumb. Give plenty of thought to what you will say, and carefully craft the response
  • This section has to grab the reviewer’s attention, get them interested in what your innovation could mean to the agency and the world.

– Eric Adolphe


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