SBIR Primer

I wrote this article for eZine back in 2009. I thought with the upcoming DoD SBIR proposals being due next week, it would be a good time to refresh our memories on this small business R&D program.

Small businesses are always on the lookout for opportunity and the Federal Government is a great provider of opportunities for the small guys. However, small businesses typically do not have the resources or expertise on hand to navigate their way through finding, comprehending, and then winning government contracts. Or so they think. Yes, it can be a test of your will (and wits) to find certain types of federal work when you are a small business spending your valuable time and hard earned money on keeping and growing your business. There is one program out there for the savvy and innovative small business (in a variety of industries); the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR).

The SBIR Program is administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration and twelve federal agencies participate in spending over $2 billion in funding. This Program provides small, high-tech companies a great shot at contributing to the nation’s research and development, and eventually commercial growth, efforts. Think of the SBIR Program as being one large river of funding with all the agencies being streams of funding off this river. Some are very large creeks, such as the Department of Defense, and some are smaller brooks, such as NOAA.

Each agency may follow slightly different solicitation methods and cycles, and may use slightly different formats and submission methods. However all have the goal of bringing a small business’s innovative idea to commercial fruition via a three phased approach. Phase I: This phase allows a business to provide proof of concept or prove the feasibility of their idea. Awards usually hover around $100,000. Phase II: This phase takes that feasible idea into a demonstrative prototype and awards can be upwards of $1 million. Phase III: This is an “unofficial” phase as it does not include SBIR Program funding, however it can include internal funding and perhaps outside source investment to bring the prototype into commercialization.

The key for a small business is finding that great opportunity on which to propose and then winning a Phase I. Getting to Phase II and III should be considered from the onset, but if a company has not yet jumped into the SBIR pool, getting that first Phase I sometimes is the biggest hurdle. It can be done however, and with minimal time and expense. Here is how.

Each agency will solicit Phase I proposals throughout the year; the DoD solicits three times a year, whereas NASA solicits only once. All of these solicitation release dates (and sometimes pre-release dates) are posted on agency websites. A great starting point is Find an agency that suits your service/product and industry well and find out when their solicitation release date(s) may be. Then:

1. Review all the topics publicized in the solicitation. Not only the topic titles, but also the description and objective;
2. Decide which topic(s) on which you wish to propose. Use the information you gleaned from the description and objective to decide if your business may have an INNOVATIVE approach, solution, or idea that matches the needs of the agency;
3. Review the solicitation. Make note of eligibility, format, content, and submission requirements. Also make note of certain restrictions and limitations;
4. Build your proposal. There is a short time line from when the solicitation is officially released to when proposals are due, typically it runs one month. Make sure you can build the company information, technical proposal, and pricing proposal in time;
5. Red Team your proposal. It is helpful to have an outside set of eyes review your proposal. As a business who is excited about your idea, it is great to have a sanity check to make sure you have clearly stated why you are innovative, how your work will be of a benefit to the government, and if you met the agency’s objectives;
6. Submit and wait. Sometimes it may be over four months before you hear back on your proposal. Sit tight, you will find out how it went once the agency has made its decisions.

Keep in mind that you want to promote your innovative approach or idea, your qualified employees, and your ability to take a Phase I idea through to Phase III. Matching those things with an agency’s need means easy opportunity for your business. As complicated as other non-SBIR solicitations and proposals can be to find and successfully win, the SBIR Program is set up to make it easy on the small business. It provides you with clear direction, a level playing field, decent profit, and an opportunity to grow your business with little risk.


About Stephanie Amend

Stephanie is the Principal and CEO of Arrowhead Solutions, LLC, a solutions firm specializing in assisting established small businesses be successful government contractors.

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