Proposal Planning

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • How are proposals evaluated?
  • How do I find a topic that fits?
  • How are proposals reviewed by the various agencies?
  • Can I ask questions before writing my proposal?


The National Science Foundation invented and designed the program, but the motivation of the program is said to have come from an Air Force General named James Abrahamson, who said something like, “Why can I get state-of-the art electronics at Radio Shack, but my war fighters cannot get the latest technology in their war fighting systems?” He commissioned a study and learned:

  • From the early 1980’s, nearly every net new job over the previous 20 years came from small businesses. Since that time we have seen a reduction of defense contractors from hundreds down to five majors, but the point still stands – small businesses create the bulk of new jobs.
  • We should encourage disadvantaged economic entities such as small businesses, women-owned businesses, and minority-owned business. These businesses are innovating, but the results of that innovation are not getting into our weapons systems.
  • Billions of dollars are spent every year in basic research for Department of Defense systems; however, the research is not being applied to the commercial marketplace.
  • Of the top ten most impactful patents, that is, those that made the most significant economic impact, eight of those ten came from small businesses.


Before you start writing your proposal, it is important to understand how your proposal will be evaluated. The major evaluation criteria used in evaluating proposals for award include:

  • Technical or Intellectual Merit
  • Team Qualifications
  • Value to Agency – Significance to Agency Mission or Charter
  • Potential for Commercial Success – Broader Impacts
  • Cost & Cost Realism


The government funds innovative, creative new technology and approaches to solving problems and advancing the state-of-the-art in a particular science or technology. Many agencies are interested in “high-risk/high-payoff” proposals. Therefore, creative, innovative solutions are important. However, the proposer must also be sure that the innovation addresses a particular government need, charter, mission or requirement. Consider the following questions:

  • Does your idea advance the state of the science or technology?
  • Does your innovation provide a brand new way of doing things that has never been tried before?
  • Is it innovative and creative?
  • Does it have potential for commercial success?
  • Is your science or technology at the leading edge, and can you describe your innovation in context of other approaches and their maturity?
  • Does your proposed research or work plan prove feasibility using a methodology that is accepted by the scientific or technical community?

You must write your proposal such that it “meets or exceeds” these technical/intellectual merit criteria. The goal is to write a proposal that will receive the highest possible scoring. This is accomplished within the Research Plan or Work Plan portion of the proposal. The Significance section of your proposal should also point out the importance of your innovation and demonstrate your understanding of the science or technologies’ societal impacts.


Your proposed research/engineering team must be clearly qualified to perform the work. In the Personnel section of the proposal you must provide enough biographical information about work experience and education to convince a reviewer the proposed personnel are able to perform the work. Some agencies (e.g., NSF and NIH) allow extensive biographies. Others limit the information to what can be contained in a few pages. Note that research experience is not limited to what has been done by your company. Be sure and include related work experience performed by key personnel when working for other companies.

While agencies do not require that the Principal Investigator (PI) hold a Ph.D. degree, personnel must be qualified to perform the proposed scientifc or technical work. Realistically, proposals addressing basic science and engineering research at agencies such as NIH nearly always need personnel with a Ph.D. or M.D. Proposals in applied science and engineering at agencies such as DoD are often funded without the PI having a Ph.D.

Be sure to review the personnel requirements for your research team


A winning proposal will have significant value to the awarding agency. That is, it will address a problem that the agency is trying to solve. This means you must understand the particular mission, goals and charter of the agency. Be sure to research the targeted agency to understand its needs and focus. Also, recognize that research interests change over time. An agency interested in battery technology may change its focus to something else – e.g., biomass. You must determine what the agency’s current research and application interests are. For example, in a time of war and limited budgets, DoD agencies have different needs and priorities than in peacetime. Ask yourself: Why will my proposed research be important to the agency?



Realistically, most government agencies are more interested in solving their own problems than in your commercial success. However, the Congress views the SBIR program as a vehicle for both meeting government research needs and developing innovative new products and technologies that grow the U.S. economy. Thus the section of the proposal addressing Potential for Commercial Success is important and is often used as a tiebreaker when proposals are evaluated. Agencies receive many proposals for a given topic. Consider the case where an agency receives 10 proposals for a topic, and three of them have been evaluated as having superior technical merit. If the agency only has funding for a single proposal, it will likely use the commercialization plan evaluation factor as a tiebreaker in deciding which proposal to fund. Therefore, it is imperative that you provide a compelling commercialization story.

While all agencies must consider the commercialization potential of the proposed innovation, not all agencies provide a place in the proposal outline to address commercialization potential. In this case, you must weave your story about the potential commercialization and its importance into other areas of the proposal – perhaps placing it in the Significance of the Proposed Research section.



Many proposals are rejected because proposal evaluators do not believe that the scope of the work proposed can be achieved within the time and budget constraints of a Phase I or Phase II effort. Proposal evaluators know the effort required to perform research tasks. You must describe and defend a work plan that can be realistically accomplished within the cost and schedule constraint of the funding.

You must convince the reviewer of the cost realism of your proposal. If you have developed some know-how, technology, process, expertise, etc. that makes your proposed work plan much more productive than the norm, be sure and describe this. Provide a believable rationale describing how you can accomplish the proposed work in the proposed time and for the proposed cost when others cannot.



Every agency that participates in the SBIR program publishes a Solicitation (sometimes called a Request for Proposals (RFP)) describing their research interests (i.e., proposal topics) and instructions for responding to the solicitation. The first step is to identify a topic that interests you and that your company is qualified to respond to. You must then carefully review the solicitation, find a topic that interests you and your company, and follow all instructions exactly. Your proposal must be responsive to a specific topic in an open solicitation and meet all of the requirements of that topic or it will not be selected for award.

Did You Know?

The agencies are always seeking new ideas. You can - and should - suggest a topic idea to an agency if you have a topic that will be of value to that agency.

Some agencies publish one solicitation per year. However, others, including the Department of Defense and the Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health, offer multiple solicitations. The figure below shows some release dates and schedules. These change every year, so you must determine the solicitation schedules for agencies of interest to your company. The Zyn Systems SBIR Gateway and the web site provide a complete schedule of both open and closed solicitations. The table below illustrates a typical year’s solicitations and schedules for various agencies.

Program Release Dates Accepts Proposals Closing Dates
NSF SBIR March May June
DoD SBIR April May June
DHS April May June
EPA March March May
DOT April April June
DoD STTR January February March
NSF STTR July October November
Education IES
Fast Track
Decembeer December January
NIST SBIR November November January
DoD SBIR November November January
S&T Directorate
June July August
NOAA SBIR November November February
Non-AIDS Related Topics
PHS Omnibus
January March 5 April


5 August

5 December

AIDS Related Topics OnlyPHS Omnibus
2January March 7 May


7 September

7 January

NSF SBIR August November December


Each agency has its own proposal evaluation and review process. The process may be either internal or external. For internal review, government personnel perform the review. External reviews utilize panels of non-government experts (often university researchers) who perform peer reviews of the proposals. These panels then recommend which proposals should be funded by the government. A list of the agencies and their respective review processes is provided below.



Who is your reviewer audience for each agency?  The DoD, NASA, DOT, EPA DHS, DOC, and the DoED use internal reviewers. The DOE, NSF, USDA, and the NIH use external reviewers. External reviewers do not necessarily make the final funding decisions, but they provide independent, peer-reviewed science and technology rankings or scores for the agencies. Source:

When dealing with an agency with an internal review process, it is a good idea to get to know the topic authors/reviewer before you submit your proposal. Introduce them to you and your idea.


Each government agency (NASA, DoD, NIH, etc.) has a slightly different method of managing the SBIR process. NIH uses an omnibus solicitation and receives proposals three times each year. NIH is very open to discussion with researchers at any time. Topics are quite broad and proposers are encouraged to communicate with NIH personnel to understand their needs and current research and public health priorities.

Other agencies issue solicitations with specific research topics. These agencies typically issue a solicitation from one to three times per year. Each agency’s solicitation has specific topics and due dates. Further, each agency has specific proposal requirements with slightly different outlines and proposal format requirements. You must obtain and study each agency’s solicitation to understand its unique requirements. Each agency has a defined period of time in which they will allow discussion with potential proposers. During this time, the agency’s researchers or Contracting Officers Technical Representative (COTR) or Technical Point of Contact (TPOC) will entertain questions and discussions with you.

Each agency determines how much and what type of interaction is allowed among agency staff and potential proposers. Some agencies allow a time window for open discussion with potential proposers for a specified time following release of a solicitation. During this period, potential proposers are free to contact agency personnel and ask questions. The nature of these discussions is generally private. Agencies may also allow for discussions with agency personnel where discussions become a matter of public record. You will want to be careful and not disclose strategic information if the discussions are subject to public disclosure. It is essential for success that you understand each agency’s unique rules regarding discussions with agency personnel.

The list below describes the agencies and their respective discussion process. Be sure to check each agency’s solicitation because these rules do change over time.



Are discussions possible during open solicitations? They are restricted for the DoD, NASA, DOT, EPA, DOE, DHS and DOC. Discussion during solicitation are open for NSF, USDA, DoED and the NIH. Caution: about 10-percent of the NIH SBIRs are allocated to contracts which restricts discussions with the scientists. NIH will inform you of this when you contact them.


Nearly all the agencies now require electronic submission of proposals. A proposal submitted electronically is uploaded to an agency website where the electronic version of the proposal is processed and distributed. Agencies use different methods for receiving proposals electronically. Some use the facilities. Others have their own web sites for receiving proposals. Be sure to read and understand the process for submitting proposals. It can be a time-consuming, complex and frustrating process. You should plan on pre-registering to use the submission site. In some cases, this process can take several weeks, so be sure and do all preparatory work well before the proposal submission date.

We suggest that you allow enough time to learn the process – weeks not days. Plan on several submission iterations to completely upload all the requisite information required for a submission. About 20-percent of NIH proposals are submitted by independent consultants who specialize in helping small businesses complete the submission process.


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