NAVAIR SBIR Advice: Part 1 of 3

Three GUARANTEED Ways to Fail at Department of Defense SBIRs

The Department of Defense has just released the third and final round of small-business research contract topics for 2011. I will be studying them for interesting research opportunities (and maybe some weird ones), but in the meantime, here is the first installment of my long-promised “Ask the TPOC” series.

On May 23, I interviewed Dr. Daniel Harris, a scientist at the Navy Air Warfare Center (NAVAIR) at China Lake. Dr. Harris authors and reviews dozens of Navy SBIR topics every year. Because our conversation covered too much for one article, I intend to use it as the basis for a few short pieces. To kick things off, I present three guaranteed ways to kill a proposal. Any one of these will cause your proposal to be rejected by a technical reviewer.

  1. Be unresponsive to the topic. “Responsiveness” is important in any research proposal, but it is critical for DoD SBIRs. DoD SBIRs always focus on specific problems facing the armed forces. If your research does not specifically help solve the problem described in the solicitation, then your proposal will be rejected no matter how good the science is.
  2. Be secretive about your technology. Many small businesses write vague technical proposals, fearing that, if they reveal their intellectual property, it will be stolen or publicly disclosed. That paranoia is unfounded. The DoD deals with sensitive information all the time and has protocols for protecting that information. (Case in point: Even this essay had to be cleared before public release.) DoD SBIR reviewers are legally restricted from sharing anything in a proposal that is marked “PROPRIETARY.” If you instead “protect” your research by not disclosing it in your proposal, then the reviewer will protect the government’s money by selecting someone else’s proposal.
  3. Do not justify your claims. Your proposal must have some quantitative justification that demonstrates that the technical approach is feasible and that the proposers are capable of doing the work. Depending on the project, the justifications may be as basic as order-of-magnitude calculations or as complex as preliminary experimental results. The point is that you must have something. If, instead, your proposal merely says “Trust us”… well, chances are they won’t.


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  1. In a previous job I was in a government tech director’s front office, and we saw dozens of proposals that were powerpoint deep. When someone came with results of a demo that matched our needs, even if results weren’t yet where they needed to be to transition, the fact they had an interesting idea and had actually tried it once was often enough to get some seed money to give us a more formal demonstration in a government test area with government assessors.

      • on August 22, 2011 at 6:55 pm

      Thanks for the insights, Mike!

    • Physical Scientist on September 9, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    I agree with Dr. Harris, having finished evaluating Phase I selection on several topics, many non-selection failures dealt with the the points raised so far. Additionally, if the topic is dealing with a specific concept, and you don’t have the experience, make sure you have a consultant that has the experience or is an expert in the field of the topic.

      • on September 12, 2011 at 8:49 am

      Thanks for the comment, P.S. Perhaps I should write a post about the importance of team-building. It’s a great point.

      By the way, I’m hoping to have the last article up in the next day or two. It’s written—just needs a final edit.

  1. […] 2 of my three-part interview with Dr. Daniel Harris of the Navy Air Warfare Center in China […]

  2. […] (Part 1 and Part 2 published previously) […]

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