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A SBIR Program Director Offers Insights in Small Business Innovation Research “Grantsmanship” in the Life Sciences

Xconomy San Diego — 

There was a heavy turnout among rank-and-file scientists when the grassroots San Diego Entrepreneur Exchange (SDEE) hosted a panel discussion earlier this year on how to win a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant.

So it might be standing room only for the briefing that San Diego’s Biocom industry group has organized tomorrow at the Mintz Levin law firm, with presentations by the top administrators of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) SBIR Development Center. In recent years, the center has launched a variety of new initiatives aimed at the funding needs of life science startups and intended to help commercialize new technologies for diagnosing and treating cancer. Perhaps foremost is the Phase II Bridge Award program, which can provide as much as $3 million over three years—triple the $1 million funding limit usually set over a two-year period for Phase II awards.

With venture capital funding still at a low ebb following the market collapse of 2008, applications for Phase I funding (a maximum of $150,000) under the SBIR program increased by 68 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to GenomeWeb.

In recent years, the federal government has been awarding a total of more than $2.2 billion a year in funding for SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants—with the NCI getting about $110 million of the $616 million total allotted to the National Institutes of Health in 2010, according to Ali Andalibi, program director of the NCI SBIR Development Center.

“What’s changed is the way the program is administered,” Andalibi told me in a recent telephone interview. In creating the SBIR development center in 2008, Andalibi said the NCI was emulating the National Science Foundation by creating a centralized program office to manage all aspects of the cancer institute’s SBIR and STTR programs. As an example of the sort of innovation needed, the NCI and other NIH institutes recently issued a SBIR contract solicitation in search of  two new technologies—one for a new type of vaccine for preventing HIV infections and HIV-associated cancers, and the other for a new type of imaging to help optimize anti-angiogenic therapeutics. (A document detailing the solicitation is here.)

Michael Weingarten, director of the NCI SBIR Development Center, and Andalibi, who joined the center from NSF, don’t make the award decisions. Their only job, Andalibi told me, “is to work with the SBIR companies.”

Andalibi agreed in large part with advice that a panel of successful SBIR recipients offered three months ago to more than 140 people who attended an evening event organized by the San Diego Entrepreneurs Exchange (SDEE).

“Getting the grant requires the ability to write a good proposal, and that’s called grantsmanship,” Andalibi said. Based on his past experience as a biomedical scientist, Andalibi said the key to winning an SBIR grant is a research program that is cleverly designed and a proposal that’s understandable.

He also offered a few tips to applicants:

—Have as much preliminary data as you can. “Preliminary data is what convinces scientists of the merit of an idea.”

—Significance is a key aspect of the proposal, so targeting a major disease is important.

—Solicit letters of support from prominent researchers in the field. “The right kind of support letters are important. The stronger they are, the better.”

—Be realistic. “It’s important to be realistic about what you can accomplish, and not over-propose or under-propose.

—Share your proposal with someone who has been successful in getting a grant. “My best friends were the ones who just tore apart my application.”

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