NIH SBIR Review Process

June 20, 2013

in Fundraising, Ideas

For some startups, the SBIR funding mechanism is an excellent way to receive non-diluting funding to bootstrap research efforts towards developing a product. SBIR funding is reserved for commercializing high research-value projects which have a good chance at being commercially viable. Typically that means that PhD-level qualifications are required.

From a startup perspective, there are pros and cons associated with SBIR funding, which I will write about in a future post. One salient point is that SBIR funding should be a “means” to achieve work highly aligned with pre-existing business objectives, not an “end” to revenue generation through haphazardly planned side projects.

A few times a year, I participate in an NIH SBIR review committee. My background in high-performance computing, medical image processing, and software commercialization helps me contribute to reviewing grant applications in those areas. After participating in a number of NIH review groups, I’m very impressed with the NIH review process.

The process is as follows:

  • Applicants submit their grant applications
  • NIH coordinators send those applications to a scientific review group of 30 volunteers
  • Each volunteer is responsible for doing a pre-meeting in-depth review of 10 or so applications, along with assigning those applications a score from 1-10 (lower is better). Each application gets 3 or so in-depth reviews.
  • All 30 reviewers are given access to all the in-depth reviews
  • All 30 reviewers get together in-person for 2 days to discuss the applications, starting with the applications receiving the highest scores
    • For each application, the 3 primary reviewers verbally summarize their reviews and scores, followed by an open floor discussion about each application
    • At the end of discussion, all 30 reviewers score the application
  • The final scores are used by the NIH to sort applications into priority for ultimate awarding, subject to budget constraints

Scoring is broken down into 5 main categories:  signficance, investigators (the team), innovation, approach, and environment.

I’m impressed with the high-quality of the scientific reviewers on these panels. Top researchers, doctors, surgeons, and entrepreneurs from around the country are part of the process. I’m in Washington DC today and tomorrow to participate in one of these review groups.

The DOD review process is different. As far as I understand, DOD uses its own internal resources to review applications. There is also a difference in mindset, where DOD SBIR proposals are targeted a specific DOD needs whereas NIH SBIR proposals are generally open to any applicant-defined proposal.

What experiences have you had with SBIR funding?


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