Tips to Improve your SBIR Proposals (from an experienced proposal reviewer)

40 Mistakes (updated)!

As an experienced Phase I and Phase II SBIR reviewer, I have seen so many silly and unnecessary mistakes kill a proposal, that I started writing them down.
The NSF says that they award about 10-15% of proposals, see #8 below.  However, in my experience, on a panel reviewing 10 proposals, there is usually 1 or 2 that are “fundable”.  VERY rarely are there 3.  All of the rest of them are unfundable, usually for the reasons below.  Just by avoiding these mistakes, you put yourself in that very top tier of fundability.  And being in that tier makes it nearly 80% chance, by my estimates, that you will be funded!
It is hard for proposing teams to imagine that these simple mistakes can eliminate them from consideration, but the reviewers are very experienced.  Typically review panels include current or former SBIR PI’s or award recipients, as well as traditional research grant recipients (university researchers) and occasionally entrepreneurs, depending upon the agency.  They know what to look for, they know what makes a winning team and they often review many proposals over many years, so they know that the Program Director is looking for.
These are specific real mistakes from real proposals and I wrote these lessons down right away!  First I got to 10, then 18, then 30, and now I’m up to 40. These are all “real world” mistakes that I have personally seen as a reviewer that have eliminated otherwise quality proposals from consideration!  Let me repeat that, these simple mistakes ELIMINATED a proposal from even being considered for funding.  Bummer for all those teams – don’t be one of them. Read these 10 and then download the entire 40!  Take them seriously.

1. Read the Solicitation.
2. Follow the Instructions in the Solicitation.
4. Create a really detailed research plan/ technical work plan (and if the solicitation says 5 pages, make it 5 pages!) This is what the agency is paying for.
6. Demonstrate your ability to take a product to market (either through revenue or through past successful commercialization efforts).
8. One Program Director put it this way – the NSF Phase I award rate is about 10%, but if you are 1) clear about the Innovation and 2) clear about the market, you are ahead of about 60% of the proposals!
9. Make sure you have GOOD (concrete) letters of support that lend credibility to the team and/or to your concept. If you are like many PI’s and you write them “as a starting point”, MAKE THEM UNIQUE (and don’t assume your contacts will customize very far, many will sign and send back). It becomes very obvious if they are all the same.
10. Ask for the maximum amount that is permitted (to the penny!). If it is $150k max, ask for $150k, if it is $225k, then ask for $225k. Leftover money doesn’t help the Program Director.
21. If you have a university or other sub-awardee partner, NEVER give them the maximum allowable amount (i.e.50% in an NSF Phase II) – instead offer them 5% or 10% less than the maximum to give your company some flexibility. Why? Because a University can always fill up whatever budget you offer them! And they’ll get the work done in a smaller amount as well.
24.Don’t assume that your Phase II reviewers have your Phase I proposal, they usually cannot see it and only a few of the reviewers may have been a reviewer on the your Phase I proposal. Pretend you are starting from scratch with every reviewer.
28. Don’t ever make a Program Director say “The PI is not coachable”! Can you say Death Knell?

We share the full list of Forty with members of our VentureWrench SBIR Community. Fill in the form below to Get the Full List of Forty ways to improve your SBIR proposal!



By entering your email in the box above, you confirm that you have read and agree to our terms of service, and privacy policy and agree to receive more information from us.
Our mission at VentureWrench is to help you achieve your entrepreneurial dreams. Our curated library of the best resources to help entrepreneurs,, is live.  Sign up now for your free account!

Members of the community will receive email updates, links to useful resources, entrepreneurship highlights, opportunities for training and other information to help your success!