Step 2: SBIR proposal process – writing basics

There are whole series of writing guidelines that apply specifically to developing a successful SBIR proposal.

Understand the big picture before you begin writing.

  • Understand the whole project from start to finish, from feasibility to commercialization. Phase I makes a logical starting point for Phase II, and Phase II creates a basis for Phase III.
  • Understand what resources (people, equipment, subcontractors, commercialization partners, money, etc) are needed along the way, and when they will be identified and secured.
  • Understand why the project should be undertaken, what will be the outcome or benefit of the Phase III, both to the market and to your company.
  • Understand whether the Phase II effort will allow you to complete all of the necessary R&D (or whether Phase III need to finish the R&D before progressing to commercialization, and where that Phase III R&D money is going to come from), what the Phase III market is, and down what commercialization path you need to travel to exploit that Phase III opportunity. In other words, get a handle on how to estimate the Phase III market.

Give a lot of thought into your objectives and work plan in your Phase I or Phase II proposal. Reviewers are looking for details.

But don’t overlook the big picture.

SBIR Writing Outline

Here is an example of an SBIR abstract:

Plastic media blast (PMB) is rapidly growing as a coating removal method because it does not damage composite or soft metal surfaces when compared with the effects of chemical stripping solvents or hard abrasives (i.e., sand), however the conventional PMB materials are all highly resistant to biodegradation. A commercially available, biodegradable plastic known as PHBV and manufactured by ABC Industries,  is proposed as a biodegradable plastic media blast (BPMB). This new class of biodegradable polymers has several unique features which make it an ideal candidate as a BPMB: (1) microorganisms rapidly biodegrade it to C02 and water, (2) it is not affected by water or humidity like starch-blast media, (3) like conventional  thermoplastics, it   can   be melted, molded or extruded, and (4) different hardness characteristics can be engineered into the polymer formulations.    has outlined a comprehensive Phase I project for conversion of raw PHBV into 20-30 mesh abrasive, testing and evaluation of coating removal characteristics using established procedures for PMB application, documenting biodegradation features, and performing a cost analysis for transitioning this new material to commercial production and application.

So, identify the problem, provide a solution to the problem, explain why the solution will work, present a plan to demonstrate the solution and, finally, identify the benefits of the solution.


Besides having a true innovation to begin with, compliance is perhaps the single most important predictor of a win or a loss. The level of competition has increased significantly from 1 in 7, to 1 in 16, to perhaps 1 and 32 today. Here are some tips:

  • Read, understand and following the agency’s instructions.
  • Also known as the “funding opportunity announcement (FOA).”
  • More than 10% of proposals received by agencies are thrown out because they fail to comply with instructions.
  • Use an administrative person who does not care about the innovation to screen the proposal and make sure that it meets minimum standards. Do this before a technical review.
  • Agencies change their instructions all of the time. Check instructions before you start the proposal every time.
  • Assign a compliance gadfly, someone who is very detail oriented and very critical to review the proposal before it goes out. The Gadfly should be looking for any minor inconsistencies between your proposal and the Government instructions. They should not be qualified to comment on the technical merit of the innovation, nor should they be someone who gets starry eyed about new technologies.

A Few Things to Say and Not to Say

  • PI is a Full Time Employee of the SBIR Company – don’t contradict this statement.
  • Work will be performed in the U.S. – don’t contradict this statement.
  • The proposal indicates that a prototype will be produced at the end of Phase I. The commercialization discussion describes how the great product will appear on Wal-Mart shelves everywhere. However, the proposal does not show how much money it will take, where the money will come from (see Commercialization section).
  • “We will” – instead, state who is doing the work (e.g. PI, Consultant, etc.).
  • Proposal shows biography of a consultant, but the cost proposal does not provide a budget for the consultant.

Things to Say – Emphasize America

  • SBIRs/STTRs are reserved for American Business.
  • All work should be done in the U.S.
  • Buy American products and services to do the work
  • Ideally, the work will have a major impact of National Significance – e.g. encourage manufacturers to move back to the U.S., help the war fighter, deny the enemy, etc.

Things to Say – Feasibility

Weave feasibility into your Phase I proposal. Even though there isn’t a feasibility section, it is real important and actually is the justification for the Government putting money into risky innovations (we don’t know if it will work). Feasibility is not one issue, it is the main purpose of the project and should be weaved in throughout the proposal:

The Abstract: Show the reviewer from the start that you are focused on feasibility by including a statement in the abstract along the lines of “The goal of this Phase 1 project is to prove the feasibility of…”

  • Identification and Significance: After stating the problem or opportunity and its importance, explain briefly how your innovative solution will solve the problem, and how you need to go about proving feasibility.
  • Work Plan: If you have indicated the questions that you must answer to prove feasibility, then the work plan can now focus on the specific tasks that you must accomplish to answer those questions. This section also should include a task in which you take all the data and information gathered in the Phase I effort, compare it against your feasibility criteria, and conclude whether feasibility has been proven.
  • Related R&D Section: You should talk about the research done by yourself or others that offers insight into why your approach might be feasible, while making sure that you distinguish between what you or others have done versus what you plan to do in this project. Don’t leave the impression that you have already proven feasibility.
  • Future R&D Section: Summarize how the feasibility effort in Phase I sets the stage for the Phase 2 work that you envision.
  • Key Personnel Section: Demonstrate that you have the right people (including subcontractors and consultants) to conduct the Phase I feasibility study.
  • Facilities and Equipment Section: Convince the reviewer that you own have secured the right resources that are needed to prove feasibility.
  • Commercialization Section: Explain that proof of technical feasibility on Phase I represents a critical milestone in your commercialization process, including your ability to raise capital. Be sure to distinguish the technical feasibility versus the market feasibility.

The DoD has reported a lot of errors in the “Related Research” section of Phase I proposals. Per the instructions, this section is supposed to convince the reviewer that:

  • Your team has prior experience relevant to this project
  • You are aware of the state-of-the-art in terms of similar related R&D.
  • Some companies did not list any related work that the team has performed in the past.

Another common error reported was a failure to address the state-of- the-art.

The instructions allow you to submit cost proposals using the format given in the instructions, or the on-line form. Use the on-line form! It enables you to take advantage of “options,” and is also more convenient.

Tips On Packaging: Creating Visual Effects

The quality of delivery of your SBIR proposal will drive the memory retention of the government evaluators.

Memory Retention

Tips on Packaging: Use of Colors

Colors tend to have an emotional association. Persuasion in the sales process is 50 percent emotion and 50 percent logic. The specific emotional association will vary with the type of audience, individual, and culture.

Blue – Peaceful, soothing, cool Authority, power (sometimes) Backgrounds (90 percent of all business presentations) Dark shades often use for printed headings White – Neutral, purity, wisdom Warm, cheerful Font color choice for dark background Yellow – Warm, cheerful Bullets, subheads of dark background Red – Losses, danger, action Excitement, energy Bullets and highlights, seldom as a background Green – Money, growth, assertive Warmth, comfort (sometimes) Highlights, occasionally as a background

Eliminate False Subjects

They displace the true subject of a sentence, waste readers time, and obscure meaning.

Grammar Tips

  • Eliminate Active/Passive Voice. Use active sentences unless you have a good reason to choose passive
  • Use a passive sentence when you do not know or do not want to mention the actor
  • Use a passive construction to clearly link two sentences
  • Use personal pronouns and active voice to convey responsibility and clarity
– Eric Adolphe [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]]]

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