Event Review: Building your company with non-dilutive funding - SBIR grants (3 of 4)

August 26, 2017 SDEE Workshop:  Building Your Company with Non-Dilutive Funding 

By Roberta Vezza Alexander, PharmD, PhD

Continuing with the series, Building your company with non-dilutive funding. This part summarizes the talk of R. Scott Struthers, PhD, Founder & CEO, Crinetics Pharmaceuticals at the SDEE event on October 26, 2017.

Scott focused on small business innovation research (SBIR) grants, described the scoring system, and gave advice on how improve the odds of success, what to avoid, and what to do to be on the reviewer’s good side.

SBIR scoring system

It takes a year or so to get funded, so time your application wisely. Approximately a month after submission, a grant is assigned to a review panel within a certain NIH institute. There is a large variation in panel or institute success rate and, since you can make a request, choose carefully the review panel that can better understand your proposal. The same data can be used for applications to different agencies. For example, the eye institute funded a grant that got a relatively low score just because of the low competition.

All grants are ranked based on the preliminary scores (from 1 to 9) of 3 primary reviewers, who upload their score before the panel meets in person in Washington, DC. Of the 3 reviewers, only 2 actually write the review. During the panel meeting, the worst half applications are triaged (“not discussed”), although any reviewer can rescue a grant and force it to be discussed. Keep in mind that you won’t get funded if you have been rescued. The best half applications are discussed by the panel in order of preliminary score, and the primary reviewer summarizes the application in a couple of minutes. This may be followed by a brief discussion and the moderator asks for the score of the 3 individual reviewers. The final score is the average of all votes (1-9 scale, whole integers) times 10 (ie, range is 10 – 90).

In general, the lower the score the better, although the cutoff varies. A score of 20 is one of the best scores that one can get. Scott gave the example of an application that initially got a score of 57 and did not get funded; it was rewritten and resubmitted, got a score of 24, and got funded almost $300,000.


The budget

In the beginning, you can probably survive without paying yourself a salary but, as time goes on, take salaries into account.

Ask for a high percentage of overhead because that gives you flexibility: you can use money allocated for overhead for direct costs, while you cannot do the opposite.

Tips and tricks for a successful grant application

  • Your application needs to be relevant to the institute you are targeting.
  • Choose topics of broad interest. SBIR study sections can be very broad, so the reviewer may have never heard of your favorite protein before your application!
  • Write clearly, use a clean layout, leave some blank space, use good grammar and proper spelling.
  • Detail the scientific approach (eg, controls, reagents, sources), make sure that figures, references, and formulas are correct, and describe the validation of biological reagents.
  • Define abbreviations.
    • Make a comprehensive table with abbreviations and put it just before the references, so that it does not “count” as text.
  • Use schematics to illustrate the main concept.
  • Use the figure captions to describe the research methods so that you can explain your methodology in smaller font.
  • Don’t write a chemistry grants without a structure: you can put the structure of a molecule that is not your lead compound to protect your intellectual property.
  • Respect the fact that your reviewer may not know the topic well, so avoid lingo, jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations.
    • Keep in mind that reviewers work as hard as you and are reviewing 10 grants this month! It takes Scott one evening (after dinner to midnight) per grant.
  • Write the review for the reviewer.
    • This grant has potential for significant impact because…
    • This grant is innovative in...
  • Mention the environment you work in, including the academic institution in San Diego and SDEE.
  • Give yourself enough time to write a good application, and go back a few days later to read it with fresh eyes.
  • Put in place confidentiality agreements with scientists you trust, and have them critique your proposal: it will likely improve.
  • Do not submit the application on the last day, as it may not go through.
  • Do not submit a bad grant just to try your luck. That will only serve to get you a bad reputation, especially if you end up in the same study section.
  • Resubmit an application regardless of initial score.
    • The bulk of the work was done on the first submission, so the second time it is going to be easier.
    • Address reviewer concerns carefully. Rebut carefully and respectfully because you will likely get the same reviewer.
    • Add new data or new equipment periodically, so that they are already in the application when you need to resubmit.

Stay tuned. The final part of this series can be found here. The first part in this series can be found here

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