August 21, 2020
It is important to understand the SBIR/STTR review process prior to initiating your SBIR/STTR application, so that you can tailor your proposal to meet all of the review criteria. However, there is not a one-size-fits-all review process, and each government agency has its own method for reviewing submitted applications.
For most agencies, your proposal must pass administrative review or prescreening to confirm that it is responsive to the solicitation and compliant with the proposal requirements. This screen may include factors such as font type/size, page limitations, proposal components, and other guidelines detailed in the application guide. On average, 5-10% of SBIR proposals do not pass this administrative review and are returned without peer review.
The next steps of the review process differ markedly among the government agencies, and you should carefully read the solicitation to understand the review process and selection criteria for the opportunity for which you are applying. Below, we highlight the review process at three of the larger agencies: NIH, NSF, and DoD.
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Once an NIH application is submitted through ASSIST or grants.gov, the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) Division of Receipt and Referral completes an administrative review. If the proposal passes, CSR gives the proposal an application number before sending it to the appropriate Scientific Review Group (SRG). Although the roster of reviewers in your SRG is publicly available, you may not contact any of the reviewers.
Your application will be assigned to 3 initial reviewers in your SRG, who will rate your proposal on the 5 NIH review criteria: Significance, Innovation, Investigator(s), Approach, and Environment. Each reviewer will also assign an initial “impact score” between 1-9, with 1 being the best. Those proposals that fall in approximately the top half from this initial review will be discussed by the entire SRG, and each reviewer on the panel will submit a score, which will be averaged and multiplied by 10 to obtain an overall impact score between 10-90.
Your overall impact score will generally be posted in eRA Commons within 2-3 business days after the SRG meeting date. Even after you receive your score, it may still be unclear whether your score is strong enough for your proposal to be funded. There are two extremes, however, that you may encounter. First, instead of a score, you may see the dreaded “ND” or “Not Discussed”. This means that your proposal was in the bottom half of submitted proposals as scored by the three initial reviewers assigned to your proposal, and so it was not brought up for discussion by the SRG. If you find yourself in this situation, you will likely need to make major revisions or change the scope of your proposal entirely, prior to resubmitting. On the other extreme, if you receive a score in the 10s or low 20s, you have a very good probability of receiving funding.
Approximately two months after the SRG meeting, the Advisory Council will meet to discuss which proposals will be funded. If you received a strong or borderline impact score, this is a good time to contact your Program Officer, who will advise you on whether your proposal is likely to be funded.
National Science Foundation (NSF)
All applications submitted to the NSF are filed to the Technology Topic Area you identified in your Project Pitch submission. Each of these Topic Areas is run by an NSF Program Director, who will, after a first pass administrative review, assign a minimum of three experts in the field to review your proposal. These experts may be academics, government scientists, or industry leaders, whichever best fit your technology and proposal. Unlike the NIH, the identities of the NSF panelists are not publicly available.
The NSF reviews its proposals following three criteria: Intellectual Merit, Broader Impact, and Commercial Impact. The first criterion, Intellectual or Technical Merit, assesses the potential of the proposed research to advance knowledge within its own field and across different fields. This involves consideration of the creativity and innovation of your approach, as well as the qualifications of your team, and whether your research environment is adequate to produce a successful outcome. The second criterion, Broader Impact, asks the expert reviewers to consider the societal benefit of your proposal, and how likely your proposal is to advance desired societal outcomes. The last criterion is based on the Commercial Impact your technology is expected to achieve. Here, experts will evaluate whether there is a significant market opportunity for the proposed technology or product.
After the initial reviews, the entire panel of reviewers discusses and sorts the proposals into one of the following categories: Highly Competitive, Competitive, Low Competitive, and Not Recommended for Funding. About 10% of proposals are ranked as Highly Competitive and are very likely to be funded. Budget permitting, some of the proposals in the Competitive category may be funded as well. The Program Director guides the panel discussion but does not contribute to the content discussion, and the Program Directors make the final funding decisions.
Department of Defense (DoD)
DoD has the largest SBIR/STTR budget, granting over $1B in SBIR/STTR contracts each year. The DoD review process is heavily focused on whether your technology is aligned with the specific topic area and whether it has a reasonable chance of providing a practical solution. There are three evaluation criteria for DoD proposals, listed in descending order of importance:
1) The soundness, technical merit and innovation of the proposed approach and its incremental progress toward topic or subtopic solution.
2) The qualifications of the proposed principal/key investigators, supporting staff, and consultants. Qualifications include not only the ability to perform the research and development but also the ability to commercialize the results.
3) The potential for commercial (government or private sector) application and the benefits expected to accrue from this commercialization.
It is a good idea to reach out to the DoD Topic Author to seek feedback on your approach before fully developing and submitting your proposal. As soon as topics are announced, there is a “Pre-Release” period in which you can interact with the topic author; this period lasts for approximately 1 month. Once the Pre-Release period ends, proposers cannot speak directly with the topic author but must submit any questions that they have via e-mail. The answers are then publicly posted on SITIS which stands for the SBIR Interactive Topic Information System.
The Topic Authors are responsible for soliciting reviewers for the proposals, and the identities of the reviewers are not available to applicants. You will typically receive an email 2-3 months after your proposal submission to notify you whether you are being considered for an award. If you are being considered for an award, you will need to provide financial and company information to demonstrate that you are a qualified small business with an appropriate grant accounting system and internal controls, and so it is a good idea to have these systems in-place while you are waiting for the results of the review.