Guide to NIH SBIR grant tips and resources

by Tom Hollon

Here are links to 21 topics related to winning NIH SBIR grants.

If you’re serious about applying for NIH SBIR grants, you can’t go wrong by spending a day studying NIH’s many web pages on the subject. NIH has so many SBIR web pages, however, that it’s easy to get lost and overlook something important. So here’s my guide to pages I consider especially useful.

NIH SBIR grant info excels in explaining the basics of applying for SBIRs and how they’re reviewed. But that’s not the same thing as explaining how to write a SBIR grant that can win. NIH does offer some tips for winning SBIR grants, but its emphasis is generally on the basics.

NIH SBIR/STTR grant submission deadlines for 2014

April 5, Aug. 5, Dec. 5 2014

 (For AIDS-related SBIR/STTR grants: May 7 and Sep. 7 2014, and Jan. 7, 2015)

1. NIH SBIR and STTR parent announcements

NIH uses parent announcements, or PAs, to explain major research grant programs, including SBIRs. At this writing, the most recent PA for the SBIR program is PA-12-088. There’s also a PA for STTR grants.

The PA explains the purpose of SBIRs, who’s eligible to apply, application due dates, and review criteria for a winning grant. Especially useful is the list at the end of the PA: here are NIH SBIR Program Officers for each NIH institute and center (plus program officers for the FDA and CDC). If you need to get in touch with a program officer for advice on your SBIR project idea, NIH’s SBIR PA is the handiest place I know to find who is the right person.

NIH SBIR program announcment (PA) with list of SBIR program officers

NIH STTR program announcement (PA)

2. NIH FAQs for SBIRs and STTRs

Brief answers to frequently asked SBIR/STTR grant questions including grant applications, who’s can apply, research budgets, human subject protections, protecting intellectual property, and how grant review works.

FAQs for NIH SBIR and STTR grants

3. and eRA Commons: Required early registration for SBIR newcomers

If your company is applying for a NIH SBIR grant for the first time, it must register with both NIH eRA Commons and (eRA stands for electronic Research Administration.) NIH does not award grants to unregistered applicants. And unfortunately, registration cannot be done at the last minute. eRA Commons and each require your company to register at least 4 weeks ahead of NIH’s SBIR grant submission due date. To be safe, make it 5 weeks.

NIH eRA Commons

4. NIH SBIR study sections (i.e., review committees)

“Study section” is NIH jargon for a committee organized by NIH’s Center for Scientifc Review (CSR) to review NIH grant applications for technical and scientific merit. To win funding, your SBIR grant application will need an outstanding score from one of the SBIR study sections listed in this table:

CSR’s list of NIH SBIR study sections

Each line in the table links to a SBIR study section web page describing research areas it is responsible for.

In studying this table, you may find that two study sections seem possibilities to review your grant. In that case, don’t choose between them until you talk it over with NIH SBIR program officers. It may be that your project will seem more innovative to one study section than the other, and thus more likely to receive a winning score with one than the other.

When SBIR grant applications are submitted electronically, CSR receives them and decides which study section will review them. Years ago CSR assigned grant applications to study sections by reading cover letters and application abstracts manually. Today a software algorithm makes most assignments (it’s probably done by matching keywords for study sections’ areas of interest to grant application keywords).

To describe your SBIR research project to match the right study section, examine your study section’s web page for keywords you can include in your grant application to steer CSR’s algorithm to the right place.

5. Best page to explore SBIR funding opportunities

There is no better place to start searching for SBIR funding opportunities than this one, but it may seem confusing because of its dozens of links. But if it’s only  SBIR grant opportunities you’re after, concentrate on the links in the box near the top, “Funding Opportunities,” and ignore the others.

Master web page for NIH SBIR funding opps and more

6. Special NIH SBIR funding opportunities

Even if you already have a grant project in mind, it’s well worthwhile to look for special announcements for NIH SBIR grants opportunities on research topics NIH is especially interested in funding. Special opps SBIR grants often pay considerably more than average and have longer than average durations. Who knows, there may be some special million-dollar SBIR grant practically tailor-made for you. You won’t know unless you look. Here’s where to start:

Announcements of special SBIR business research opportunities

7. Where to start in finding funding opportunities beyond NIH SBIR

Interested in searching for grant opportunities beyond NIH SBIRs? A place to start is It’s a great tool for grant opportunity hunting, but in my experience it is not a one-stop-shop. In the funding opportunity hunting I’ve done for clients as a grant consultant, I’ve found many opportunities listed on federal websites such as NIH, NSF, etc., that didn’t list.

So is fine for a starter, but shouldn’t be counted on as a finisher. To be thorough, search websites of individual federal grant agencies in addition.

8. NIH’s annual SBIR Omnibus of grant opportunities

The Omnibus, or Omnibus Solicitation, is a long (over 100 pages) report in which each NIH institute and center describes its high priorities for SBIR funding. It’s published annually, usually in January. And it’s free.

Why do they call it the Omnibus? Because nobody wants to call it by its full title, a definite a double mouthful: “Omnibus Solicitation of the National Institutes Of Health, Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Food and drug Administration, and Administration for Children and Families for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Grant Applications: NIH, CDC, FDA, and ACF Program Descriptions and Research Topics.”

The reason to read the Omnibus is that NIH institutes and centers are not peas in the same SBIR pod. In practice, for example, SBIR funding limits are different between NIH institutes. Some institutes seem willing to make much higher SBIR Phase I and Phase II grant awards than others. Another example: some institutes offer million-dollar post-Phase II SBIR grants for certain projects (generally drug and medical device research); the Omnibus tells which do and which don’t.

The Omnibus can be downloaded for free at several places. Here’s one:

Find a download link to the annual SBIR Omnibus here

9. Instruction guide for writing your NIH SBIR grant application

NIH has two similarly named guides containing instructions for writing NIH research grants — and it’s vital you get the right one. The NIH SBIR grant writing instruction guide you want is “SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide for NIH and Other PHS Agencies.” The other one is missing SBIR/STTR in the title. Avoid it. Here’s a page where you can download both guides; be sure to choose the right one.

SF424 (R&R) SBIR/STTR Application Guide

Note that NIH revises this application guide from time to time, so when you apply or reapply for a grant, check to see if you’ve got the most recent version.

10. NIH SBIR advice presentations from NIAID

This collection of 6 PDFs from Dr. Gregory Milman of NIAID is one the few things available anywhere on NIH websites with what I consider advanced tips for winning SBIR and STTR grants. That Dr. Millman is from NIAID (the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases) is immaterial; he offers great advice regardless of the institute you’re applying to money.

Advanced tips for winning NIH SBIR grants from NIAID

11. Summary of SBIR and STTR grant review criteria

The better you understand NIH’s criteria for reviewing SBIR grants, the better you’ll be able to write a grant that wins money. Here is a one-page summary of review criteria that NIH instructs reviewers to use for NIH SBIR and STTR Phase I, Phase II, and Fast Track grants. Here also are the SBIR-STTR review criteria for grant applications subject to requirements to protect human subjects, include women, minorities, and children, care for vertebrate animals and handle biohazards.

SBIR STTR review criteria summary

12. Guidelines for NIH SBIR grant reviewers

Highly recommended; this page is gold. Here are NIH’s general and SBIR/STTR-specific instructions to reviewers on SBIR study sections. SBIR specific instructions include criteria for scoring applications. Here too is NIH’s guidance to reviewers on NIH’s research plan scoring system, human subjects protections, budget information, application resubmissions, and other matters. The better you understand what reviewers are supposed to do with your application, the better you will understand how to write your application to get a high score.

General and SBIR-specific guidelines for NIH SBIR grant reviewers

13. NIH study section video

This short video from NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) explains that the work of reviewers is to boil your SBIR research plan down to a couple of sentences — their opinion of its probable success and impact. And then they boil it down to a number, your score. This is a warning that the challenge of convincing NIH reviewers your SBIR research project deserves funding is not to be taken lightly.

15-min NIH grant review video includes a mock study section meeting

14. NIH RePORTER grants database of funded NIH SBIR awards

Want to know what NIH has funded on a particular SBIR research topic? The NIH RePORTER is the place to look. This public NIH grant database contains years of records on all kinds of research grants and contracts funded by NIH, including SBIRs.

NIH RePORTER funded grants database

The NIH RePORTER replaces NIH’s old CRISP grants database and is better by a mile. Even so, it’s not user-friendly for anyone unfamiliar with NIH grant activity codes. Phase I SBIR grants are listed in the database under grant activity code R43; Phase II SBIRs are listed as R44 grants. The minimum you need to know about SBIR grant activity codes in order to use the NIH RePORTER can be found here in my blog:

Activity codes for NIH SBIR grants: the basics

15. Glossary of NIH grant terminology and list of NIH acronyms

NIH grant jargon is well nigh endless. Sooner or later in learning how to write SBIR grants (but more likely sooner) you’ll run across some grant term or acronym that’s indecipherable without help. Decrypt it here:

NIH grant term glossary

NIH acronym list

16. Avoiding errors in filling out your SF424 SBIR STTR grant application package

Not much is simple in filling out budget and other forms for your SBIR grant application. So NIH created this page to help you avoid common errors in the process. In the Annotated Forms section, download “Small business forms set.” In the Tips section download “Small Biz.”

 Avoiding SF424 SBIR STTR application package mistakes

17. Avoiding common NIH SBIR electronic grant application submission errors

Submitting SBIRs electronically without error

18. SBIR grant info and tips from NIAID and NINDS

For oodles more on SBIR grants and grantsmanship tips, two of NIH’s largest institutes, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), have excellent material:

SBIR info and tips from NIAID

SBIR info and tips from NINDS

19. If your SBIR project deals with cancer

SBIR info from the National Institute of Cancer (NCI)

20. NIH’s annual SBIR STTR conference

Every spring NIH hosts a day-long SBIR conference to help newcomers learn more about SBIR funding possibilities. Attending a conference isn’t essential by any means to winning SBIRs, but they usually have several good talks by people who’ve won multiple SBIRs, and they’re good occasions to buttonhole NIH grant officials to ask questions.

Every year the conference takes place in a different city. When next year’s conference is announced, the date and location will probably be announced here, in the News section:

NIH Small Business Funding Opportunities

21. NIH SBIR STTR listserve

NIH’s SBIR division sends notices by email on changes in SBIR grant policy, the location of next year’s conference, etc. If you’re interested in winning SBIRs, you should get on their list. Here’s where to subscribe and unsubscribe:

Sign up for NIH’s SBIR STTR email listserve

22. NIH policy on late submission of SBIR grant applications when it isn’t your fault

This is here mainly in case you wonder if NIH will let you submit late because you missed their deadline due to a glitch in their electronic grant submission software. Sorry, the answer is no. Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth:

“For electronic submissions, correction of errors or addressing warnings after the due date is not considered a valid reason for a late submission.  Applicants are encouraged to submit in advance of the due date to allow time to correct errors and/or address warnings identified in the NIH validation process.”

To read more, here’s the link:

NIH policy on late submission of grant applications





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