Comparing score tables for two SBIR Phase I grants provides a grantsmanship lesson not to forget: The advice in your Summary Statement isn’t necessarily everything you need to know to revise your grant and win

You probably know every NIH SBIR grant application is reviewed by three people who use a 9-point scale to grade Significance, Investigator(s), Innovation, Approach and Environment, where 1 is the best score and 9 the worst. These scores are contained in the Summary Statement NIH sends containing their critiques of your grant.

Based on those five scores, each reviewer also gives the grant a sixth score (also 1 through 9) representing its overall technical and scientific merit. This is the Overall Impact score. I’ll write about Overall Impact scores another time.

The SBIR scoring system at work

To give you a feel for the scoring system, below are scores received by two SBIR Phase I grant applications. Neither was funded, but the one on the left came very close and probably will win on its next try. It was written by a client of mine with long experience in SBIR grant writing. The other was written by a first-timer (not a client) who isn’t a scientist and didn’t understand what successful SBIR grant applications look like.

Comments on the near miss

The biggest lesson from the high scores on the left is how tough competition for NIH SBIR grants has become. Years ago when there were so many fewer competitors, this Phase I grant probably would have won without needing to be revised and resubmitted.

In the table I marked the 3s for Innovation as my main concern because innovation is an especially subjective thing to judge, so much in the eye of the beholder. So we’re rewriting the innovation section to dispel any doubt the Innovation scores should be higher.

Nor are we stopping there. We’re following the advice for improvement in the Summary Statement and looking beyond the statement for every improvement we can make so the resubmitted application scores above payline.

Comments on the crash

I got the idea for this article when I realized the person who sent me these scores couldn’t interpret them. Encouraged by the wonderful scores for Significance, they didn’t understand most of the rest of their scores were disastrous. They were being told this grant stinks but didn’t know it. To resubmit and win, this grant has to be rethought top to bottom.

Why the quality of advice in your Summary Statement may depend on your scores

Moreover, I explained to these folks in deep trouble that I thought it unlikely their Summary Statement would tell them everything they needed to fix.

To understand why this is so, suppose you are a reviewer for one of the big institutes at NIH like NCI or NIAID, where several thousand SBIR applications get reviewed each year. Let’s say you’re responsible for reviewing 10 SBIR Phase  I grants for the next grant review meeting, and you’ve just started reading the deep doo-doo grant. Within 10 minutes you know it hasn’t the slightest prayer of being funded.

Now, with all the other grants you have to review, not to mention demands on your time for everything else you’ve got going on in your life, are you really going to spend hours explaining to the authors of this piece of garbage every single thing they need to fix?

Probably not, I think. More likely you’ll offer some broad and general advice for their Summary Statement and leave it at that. Why explain more when it’s doubtful they could fix the grant no matter how good your instructions.

Now suppose the next grant you review is the near miss, the one above on the left. Just in reading Specific Aims, you sense this is a quality piece of work. Then as you read Significance, then Innovation, then Approach,  your conviction grows that they’ve thought of just about everything. By the time you finish reading you know they have an excellent chance to make this work. You only see a few minor problems, which shouldn’t take much time to explain.

For the near miss, then, isn’t it more likely the critique you’ll write for the Summary Statement will explain exactly what you think they need to fix?

This is why the best grants are likely to get the most helpful Summary Statements.

Summary Statements don’t have to be comprehensive

Regardless of how good your scores are, never forget that reviewers have no obligation to tell you everything they think you should fix in order to win. All they have to do to satisfy NIH is tell you enough to justify their opinion. It is always possible your grant has an important weakness they didn’t mention — which is up to you to find on your own and fix it if you are to win the next time around.

NIH’s rule of two strikes and you’re out makes winning SBIRs harder than ever. But even if you do strike out, you still may have options for getting your research funded.

There may still be options to win a grant for part or all of your research idea.

Not so long ago NIH allowed you to try three times to win a SBIR grant with the same research idea.

Now you can only try twice. Two strikes and you’re out.

This is one of several big changes NIH has made in the past few years to streamline grant review. With tens of thousands of grant applications to review each year, making grant review easier is a priority at NIH — even if it unintentionally makes winning SBIR grants harder.

If you’re in the situation of having struck out twice, here are some options for winning a grant for part or all of your research idea. But first, here’s what not to do.

These strategies for resubmitting a twice-failed SBIR grant don’t work (NIH won’t be fooled and will refuse to review your grant):

  • don’t merely change the title of your research project
  • don’t change your Specific Aims in just a minor way
  • don’t make minor changes to your research plan based on critiques in your Summary Statement
  • don’t submit your research plan to a different Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), different review committee, or different NIH institute

5 options for winning a grant for a twice-failed NIH SBIR research idea

1. If your research plan has such terrible scores for Significance, Innovation, or Approach that fixing it requires major changes to your Specific Aims and Approach, your repaired research plan might actually be a new application not subject to the two strikes rule.

To be sure it qualifies as a new application, talk it over with your institute’s SBIR Program Officer. Prior to speaking with your PO, email an abstract of your repaired SBIR research plan and your old abstract so your PO can compare.

In comparing, your PO will be guided by NIH Notice Number NOT-OD-09-100:

“A new application is expected to be substantially different in content and scope with more significant differences than are normally encountered in a resubmitted application. A new application should include substantial changes in all sections of the Research Plan, particularly in the Specific Aims and the Research Strategy sections. There should be fundamental changes in the questions being asked and/or the outcomes examined. Changes to the Research Plan should produce a significant change in direction and approach for the research project.”

If your PO agrees your repair job qualifies as a new application, then you can also discuss submitting it to a new FOA, different review committee, different institute, etc.

2. Decide whether you can develop your product through alternate Specific Aims and an alternate Approach. If you can do this, you may have a new application with no strikes against it.

This is slightly different from repairing a research plan as in option 1. Here you’re asking if there’s an alternate experimental approach to obtain the same or similar goal. This will drastically alter your twice-failed research plan, of course, but you may be able to retain some part of your original Specific Aims and Approach. Just be sure a PO believes it qualifies as a new SBIR application under NOT-OD-09-100 above.

3. Ask your SBIR Program Officer is there’s a RFA (Request for Applications) in your area of interest.

RFAs solicit grant applications (including SBIRs) on topics where NIH wants research encouraged. If there is a RFA in your field, you may be able to resubmit your twice-rejected SBIR research plan as a new application under NIH Notice Number NOT-OD-09-100:

“When a previously unfunded application that was originally submitted as an investigator-initiated application is to be submitted in response to an RFA, it is to be prepared as a new application.”

Naturally, your resubmitted application must meet the RFA’s grant review criteria or it won’t win a dime. Details for the RFA will be posted somewhere on NIH’s website, including the PO to contact to discuss resubmitting your SBIR research plan to compete for RFA funds.

4. If your SBIR research project can be reworked into a R21 or R01 research grant project, it can be submitted as a new application.

The vast majority of NIH R21 and R01 grants are awarded to academic researchers at universities, but a few are awarded to researchers at companies. But understand you’re in for a fight if you try this: winning these grants is even tougher than SBIRs.

To change your grant application from a SBIR to a R21 or R01 is to change its “activity code,” in NIH parlance. Under NIH Notice Number NOT-OD-09-100, such a change can make your application new, no longer subject to two-strikes-and-out:

“When an unfunded application that was reviewed for a particular research grant activity code is to be submitted for a different grant activity code, it is to be prepared as a new application.”

You’re probably familiar with R01s as the mainstay grants for funding basic medical research in academic labs. R01 grants can pay several hundred thousand per year for several years.

R21s are NIH Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Awards. These are two-year grants worth up to $275,000 in direct costs over the duration of the grant. “The R21 grant mechanism is intended to encourage exploratory / developmental research by providing support for the early and conceptual stages of project development.”

As always, if you’re thinking of going this route, talk it over with a PO.

5. Submit part or all of your NIH SBIR research plan to the SBIR program of a different agency such as NSF, DOD, DOE, FDA, CDC, etc.

Depending upon what you’re doing, NIH may not be the only game in town.

For example, while SBIR grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) do not fund research on specific diseases, they do sometimes fund research on medical technologies. Development of a drug delivery device or a special DNA microarray are examples of what NSF might be willing to consider.

Similarly, the Dept. of Defense (DOD) has funded SBIR grants for medical devices and research related to infectious diseases.


It’s devastating to lose a SBIR grant twice, but not necessarily the end of the world. You may still have ways to get your research idea funded. Start by looking over these options, then contact Program Officers for advice on what makes sense for your situation.


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