SBIR/STTR Tips: Common Proposal Pitfalls

Nov 28, 2023

SBIR and STTR proposals are truly unique documents. They must meld together strong technical / scientific content with a robust understanding of the potential market and value creation possibilities. Often it takes more than one attempt at submitting a proposal before it gets funded. Over years of reviewing proposals, working with clients and communicating with agency program staff, we have seen a number of flaws that commonly are found in proposals. Below are a few of these.

Understand the Agency

Are you thinking about your proposal as a product? This is not to be confused with the customer of the innovation you are hoping to develop. Think of your SBIR/STTR proposal itself as a product. Furthermore, think about the agency you submit your proposal to as the customer. Just as any good salesperson should do, you need to make sure that your proposal is something that will pique the interest of the buyer. In other words, is your proposal proposing an innovation, research plan, and budget that matches with the specific agency interests? Delve into each of 11 participating agencies by reviewing reverse pitch videos, agency one-pagers and agency pitch decks.


Are you being too optimistic with the work you expect to accomplish? Most solicitations that you will submit a Phase 1 proposal for will have a set dollar cap and timeline. Although there are always exceptions, most agencies fund between $100k to $250k and provide 6 to 12 months of time. While it may be enticing to propose an unrealistic amount of work given the dollars and time available, reviewers will be critical of this. Their fear is that you may run out of funds before completing the work and, as a result, the entire project will be a bust.

Milestones Unclear

Have you developed milestones that are measurable? Your workplan should be divided into distinct technical aims, each with their own milestones. Considering that a phase 1 proposal should be focused on proving the feasibility of an innovation, the milestones that you set out to achieve must be measurable. If they are not, proving feasibility will be difficult. Whether it is quantitative and/or qualitative data that you expect to achieve, be sure to engage with a team member or consultant who brings statistical expertise.


Are you developing something truly unique, or are you tweaking an existing solution to make it better? Agencies are looking to fund truly unique, innovative, novel technologies. It is your job in a proposal to suggest that your R&D efforts are going to move the state of the art forward in a big way. Proposals that suggest only incremental improvements to existing solutions simply are not innovative enough.

Value Proposition

Have you clearly described the potential value that your novel technology will have? It is imperative to define who will benefit from the technology you develop and by how much. Value can be in many forms: economic, health, efficiency, etc. Benchmarking against the current solutions (ie. competition) is important here. This can be difficult to calculate, but showing the reviewers that you have taken steps to calculate educated estimates will go a long way toward building your credibility as a product-focused business.

The SBTDC’s Tech Commercialization Team is available to work with you in an advisory capacity as you develop your proposal. Our services are confidential and no-cost.

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