In just three days the window of opportunity for applying for the new round of DoD SBIRs will open. More importantly, though, the window for talking privately to the topic authors will slam shut. Any business that is planning to submit a proposal would be foolish to miss that opportunity. Talking to the “technical point of contact” (TPOC) is not required to win an SBIR contract (I’ve won two without talking to the TPOC, and some agencies don’t allow it anyway), but it does something almost as valuable: It can keep you from losing. Applying for an SBIR is time-consuming, and TIME IS MONEY. Preparing a top-quality SBIR proposal requires about three weeks of professional effort. If you do not have a grant-writer on staff (or have not contracted one… just sayin’), then grant-writing is going to fall on your engineering staff. If your engineers are writing a proposal, that means they are not doing the work that directly pays the bills, which means that there’s a hefty opportunity cost on top of payroll costs. That’s fine. That’s an investment, but you want to make darn sure you’re investing in something that can win. That is why it is important to call the TPOC. Simply put, some topics are just not the pony you want to bet on.
I’ve come across two “red flags” that have steered me away from bad topics. First and foremost, talking to the TPOC often reveals unstated or mis-stated technical requirements… things that got lost or garbled when the agency distilled the statement of the problem down to two or three slim paragraphs for the solicitation. Sometimes you can come up with an altered or alternate approach to address this new understanding of the problem requirements. Often, though, you can’t. Sure that’s disappointing… but it’s a whole heck of a lot better to face that disappointment in a pre-proposal phone call than in a terse post-proposal debrief letter.
The other “red flag” I’ve seen occurs when a TPOC explicitly or implicitly tells you that a topic is probably not going to be funded at all. This really does happen… probably more than we like to think. The Federal Government is a complex organism, and different problems and opportunities are constantly shifting in priority. How those priorities shift is a matter of politics (sometimes on an international scale), and a small business is foolish to think it can affect policy from the bottom up. That being said, a small business has the advantage of agility. If you learn that a topic has fallen out of favor, you may be able to re-tool your proposal to address a different problem of rising prominence. At the very least you can hit the brakes on a proposal that was going to lose even if it won.
I’d like to close on the subject of “wired” topics, i.e., topics for which people think that the winner has been chosen before the solicitation goes out. It’s my opinion that this is a destructively cynical view. I’m not saying “wired” SBIRs never happens, but the evidence says it’s not common. Specifically, for the DoD, about one-third of Phase I SBIRs are won by first-time applicants; most Phase I winners (about 60%) have won fewer than five SBIRs. That really doesn’t mesh with the assertion that SBIRs are “wired.” If you are a small business with a new technology that is well aligned to an agency need, the odds of winning are actually in your favor. The only sure way to never win is to never try.