Funding your Life Science Company with Grants – SDEE Workshop Summary

By Amy Duncan, Goldfish Consulting

Apply for as many grants as you can and just keep submitting. That was the key take-home message from an SDEE workshop titled “Establish and Build Your Company Using Grants and Non-dilutive Funding.” Because grants and non-dilutive funding sources are a great way to establish and build early stage companies, SDEE asked experienced entrepreneurs and scientists in the San Diego community how to best obtain this type of funding. The panel of funding experts that led workshop included Patrick McDonough, PhD., Chief Research Officer of Vala Sciences, Christina Niemeyer, PhD, from i2 Grant Associates, and Travis Stiles, PhD, CEO & Co-Founder of Novoron Bioscience. Here is a summary of what was presented and discussed at the workshop.

Types of NIH Grants

Dr. McDonough opened the workshop by familiarizing us with different types of grants. The US government, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provides billions of dollars for biomedical research, awarding 50,000 separate grants in 2010. You may be familiar with R01 grants, which are specific for researchers at academic institutions and small business innovation research (SBIR) grants on the commercial side. SBIR grants are for domestic small business concerns with less than 500 people, owned by US citizens, engaged in research that has the potential for commercialization. Bridging the two entities are small business technology transfer (STTR) grants, which are like SBIRs but require formal collaborations with an academic institution.

Where to Find Funding Announcements

The NIH announces funding opportunities through program announcements (PA), program announcements with special review criteria (PAR), program announcement with set-aside funds (PAS), request for application (RFA), SBIR contracts, and administrative supplements. SBIR contracts are like grants but reviewed and administered differently. They are for very specific topics and released once a year, so competition is limited, making these a good option. Standard due dates to submit an SBIR/STTR application are September 5, January 5, and April 5. Funding opportunities can be found by searching on https://grants.nih.gov/funding/searchguide/index.html. Search https://www.grants.gov for any government grant, including opportunities outside the NIH. Other sources provided by Dr. Niemeyer include Proposal Central, Foundation Center, GrantDomain, Wellcome Trust Translation Fund, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Michael J. Fox Foundation, Alzheimer’s Association, National Cancer Society, and California Breasts Cancer Research Program.

How to Get More Money

If you have enough preliminary data and the program allows for it, the SBIR “FastTrack” skips the typical 9-12-month gap in funding between phase 1 and phase 2, avoiding a delay in funding. You can receive more funding if your research qualifies for a budget exemption. Every NIH institution has a list of exemptions. For the National Cancer Institute (NCI), if your research falls into an exemption category, which includes therapeutics, diagnostics, imaging technologies, devices for cancer therapies, agents for cancer prevention, low cost technologies for global health, and digital health tools, then you can ask for more than $225,000 for a phase 1 SBIR. For any SBIR or STTR proposal, Dr. McDonough recommends trying to qualify for a budget exemption by writing a strong budget justification and specifically citing one of these categories.

Preparing to Write

Dr. Niemeyer and Dr. Stiles strongly recommend prequalifying by calling the program officer and discussing your ideas. You can find their phone number at the bottom of the RFA. Gather all the information you have created about your company from white papers to presentations, even content from failed applications. This material can be used to prepare a preproposal or letter of intent (LOI), which is usually requested by foundations, because they want a quick synopsis of the project.

Proposal Elements and Approach

Application elements include the project plan, specific aims, background and significance, research plan, budget, letters of collaboration/support, accessory documents, and commercialization plan. Specific aims should be written consistently throughout the document. Likewise, use the announcement terminology and follow the recommended formatting exactly. Dr. McDonough advises to start with the budget as it forces you to think about collaborators, timeline, and supplies and spurs constructive discussion among your team. Dr. Niemeyer suggest obtaining letters of support from potential end users of the technology as then can best comment on the benefits of its utility. Expect to ghost write these letters for their edit and approval.

Writing Tips

Dr. McDonough advises to keep paragraphs and sections “self-contained” sticking to one topic per paragraph and making it easy to rearrange if necessary. Open paragraphs with the key point and don’t “bury the lede.” That is, don’t make reviewers work to find information. Instead, make it easy for reviewers to read quickly. In fact, use formatting like bold and italics to make obvious points. Keep in mind that most reviewers won’t be an expert in your field and for some, English is a second language so keep writing simple and direct. Dr. Niemeyer highly recommends the use of images and captions to help guide the reviewer. She provided three resources for presenting figures and writing legends from Editage Insights, BioScience Writers, and American Journal Experts.

Reviewing and Scoring

Dr. Stiles provided an insider’s perspective since he chairs a grant review section. Reviewers evaluate applications based on significance, investigators, innovation, approach, and environment. Each reviewer provides a score from 1 to 9, with 1 rated as exceptional and 9 rated as poor. Applications are given an impact score, which is the average of all scores multiplied by 10.

The lower the score, the better. Applications with scores below 30 typically have a good chance of getting funded. Dr. Stiles pointed out that animal models incur common criticisms. In the face of criticism, don’t necessarily pander to the reviewers concerns if you can strongly advocate for your approach. Because you will be held accountable for your decisions, which can change the direction of your project in phase 2. If the reviewer makes a point, and you can’t counter it effectively, then you should consider it. Dr. Stiles also recommends that you know who is on your panel as some may be competitors. But knowing their interests can help you write in a way that makes your application more interesting to them.

Final Advice

Dr. Niemeyer advises to “think outside the box” as you might find something more fundable than what you’re currently considering. Review your company, landscape, and consider what other diseases, applications, or devices your company can address. Dr. McDonough recommends applying for as many opportunities as possible and don’t be afraid to fail. You’ll learn by going through that writing and submission process. Rejected grant proposal are still valuable because you can revise them and resubmit, or pull sections out for the next proposal. If you get a project funded, keep writing more proposals, because the money will go very fast. Be persistent.

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