Interview with Tom Hollon

Tom Hollon and Hershey the dog wonder

How did you become a grant and proposal consultant?

The short answer is it happened by accident. I always envisioned myself running a lab and making discoveries. I envy people who get to do that.

But for me life seems to have had other plans — to help people who are far better at science or running a technology company than they are at writing. They have a great research or product story, but trouble telling it persuasively.  What I do is help them sell their ideas to federal research agencies so they can win the money they need to get back to the life they want to live.

What’s the long answer?

Ultimately I became a consultant because of an experiment I did that succeeded but did nothing to help my career. At NIH in the 90s, I did the knockout of the D5 dopamine receptor gene in the mouse. Unfortunately, the early behavioral tests indicated D5-negative mice were no different from wild-type. I was counting on those tests for exciting results I could use for a job seminar to find work in industry. It’s a tall order to get a great job with boring data.

To make matters worse, my job hunting took place when market demand for my knockout mouse skills was practically nonexistent, and I had a family to support. So I did what people do: I scrambled for what work I could find. This turned out to be writing and editing: The American Chemical Society hired me to start a science magazine for them called Modern Drug Discovery.

Barely a year later, I was fired. My downfall was being way too slow in learning the care and nurturance of the powerful people who paid the bills at the magazine, the advertisers. I was so busy working seven days a week getting a startup magazine off the ground that I never had time to cultivate advertisers as well. So I was dumped. While being fired is not exactly an experience I can recommend, it did teach me some things about myself and about business that I needed to know, and most importantly, taught me (eventually) not to hold grudges. The folks at ACS were very nice people doing the best they could, and I was doing the same. It just didn’t work out.

After that I did science journalism for several years, writing mainly for The Scientist, Nature Medicine, and Signals. Then in 2003 a startup biotech company asked me to write a grant for them. Peer reviewers rated the grant I wrote in the top 15 out of about 120 applications, and it was funded for $2 million. Other grant and RFP proposal work followed that success, and gradually this became most of my business.

(By the way, tests conducted after I left NIH revealed D5 knockout mice were hypertensive; an interesting phenotype after all.)

What’s your background in science?

I earned my PhD in microbiology at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. As a grad student I studied DNA sequences for tissue-specific expression of a murine leukemia virus called MCF13. When I graduated I moved to Paris and worked for several years at the Pasteur Institute trying to make knockout mice. I then came back to the states and worked in a neuropharmacology lab at NINDS in Bethesda, again working on knockout mice.

What is your scientific specialty?

My specialty is a business specialty, persuasive writing. I am a student of persuasive writing so I can help my clients win money.

I no longer have a scientific specialty. I’m a science generalist now, learning whatever science my clients are involved in. In the past few years that’s involved topics in drug development, bioinformatics, biomarkers, disease models, medical devices, clinical trials, nanotechnology and other subjects. I handle just about any grant or contract topic under the sun of biomedicine. I also handle topics outside of biomedicine: I worked on a physics grant recently.

Have you ever been a grant reviewer?

Yes, but I signed a pledge not to reveal which federal agency it was. Why this is such a big deal it should be secret, I don’t know, but my promise locks me into the James Bond Dilemma: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

Which grant and contract agencies do you have experience with?

So far, NIH, NSF, CDC, NIST, NASA, ONR, DoED, and DOL. Plus HHMI and grant agencies in Indiana and Louisiana.

What kind of grants and proposals do you have experience with?

I’ve worked on research grants, training grants, career development grants, instrument grants, lab construction grants, center grants, SBIR grants, and grants supporting minority institutions. I’ve worked on grants for individuals and groups. I’ve worked on grants for universities, community colleges, and companies. I’ve worked on grants to federal and state agencies and foundations. My work on RFP proposals has been for services to federal science and healthcare agencies. I’ve also worked on biotech business plans seeking money from angel investors and venture capitalists.

What’s the most important determinate for winning a grant or RFP contract?

The most important thing is having a proper perspective on what a proposal is.

These days, an ordinary grant or contract proposal doesn’t win. An ordinary proposal is just words on paper or words in pixels. But a great proposal — a winning proposal — is a million-dollar business asset for generating money. You send it to the funding agency, and — if you’ve done it correctly — a tremendous amount of money comes back. Proposal out, money in.  A proposal that can do that is a great asset.

If you see a proposal as no different than anything else you write, you can convince yourself that proposal writing is a low-level skill anyone can do, that you need not sweat over what reviewers will want to know and when, and that you can skimp on time to write it.

But if you intend your proposal to be a million-dollar asset, then it follows there is no reasonable way to expect creating such an asset to be fast, easy, or cheap. How could it be if your proposal must overcome competitors who may be just as smart as you are and please a funding agency certain to be demanding?

Creating this million-dollar asset means working extremely hard to show the customer you have what they want to buy. You must present what you offer in the most positive light to which you are legitimately entitled, without ever exaggerating or misrepresenting yourself. This kind of writing is very time consuming, so you must allot enough time to do it right. No skimping. You may also need help, either from friends, colleagues, or consultants. Line up the help you need.

To sum up, when clients stop looking at proposals as words and start seeing them as assets, there’s much more seriousness of purpose and they’re more likely to marshall the resources required to have a serious chance to win. This is why I think a proper perspective on what a proposal represents is the most important determinant to winning.

Why did you change your company’s name?

The original name, Falcon River Biomedical Communications, was chosen only because falconriver.com was easy to spell and available as a domain name. I didn’t want my last name in a web domain because it’s too easy to mispell. Nobody using Google would ever find me! Yet I never thought Falcon River sounded quite right because it didn’t suggest anything about what I do. So I renamed it Science Sherpa, hoping the new, shorter name would suggest that I am a servant to scientists and science companies, because that is how I see myself.

What else about you?

I’m from Alabama and I’m a francophile, a Christian, a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, and a fan of Wolfie Mozart and Miles Davis. Before I became a scientist I was an actuary for a life insurance company. When I was young I hitchhiked 8000 miles across Europe and became fluent in French while working as a grape picker in the south of France. I don’t have hobbies because I don’t have time; if I did I would study piano. I’m in the custody of the same wife for more than 20 years, I’m the father of a now grown-up daughter, and my dog forces me to walk him twice a day.

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