Forget the entrepreneurial side- just do interesting science on STTR/SBIRs

It is that time of the year again and it happens 3 times a year for those of us trying to get NIH science grants for a business. Yes, weeks of STTR and SBIR thinking, writing and rewriting is enough to drive you crazy. I have a few different systems to try to take the monotony out of it. I have even come up with some diagrams for brainstorming grants and ideas and occasionally there is a glimmer of success. I have been writing these kinds of grants for different companies since 2004 and there have been a few changes through the years, paper to online submission being notable as a source of frustration. Length of submissions, paylines dropping, scoring systems change, addition of more hurdles to jump through, increased competition, all have caused grief. Still they are better than RO1’s in my humble opinion.

It does get you thinking though, how much of an entrepreneur do you have to be to come up with a fundable SBIR or STTR? I would say from personal experience (from someone with a pretty thin idea of running a business and no business qualifications) that you need zero entrepreneurial skills to write one of these grants. At least I think that holds for a phase I grant which has a 6 page strategy, 1 page aims and a few other pieces to contend with. By phase II you need to get someone with a business streak to help because you need a 12 page commercialization document and a 12 page strategy to start with. But then after all you are going after some serious money, likely a million dollars, compared to $100-200K in phase I.

Of course I am over simplifying, but I do wonder would I be better at these grants if I did have any type of business experience? I have seen several so-called entrepreneurs have a shot at these grants and really the outcome is not pretty. It certainly helps to get one or more pairs of eyes to look at what you write, but beyond that, writing these should be left to scientists, and good ones at that. And of course if you are collaborating with someone it should be a given that they will provide good feedback and edits to what you write, otherwise that is the last time you work with them.

I think the main things to consider to stand a chance with a SBIR or STTR grant for the NIH is to have a piece of interesting science, an idea, a good chunk of preliminary data and some really good scientists to work with. Folks can say they want to see some idea of commercialization, but honestly if you have something really compelling scientifically, who would not want to fund it or buy it later. It’s just common sense. The latter goes without saying. Like most NIH type grants credibility goes a long way, except when there are people on the study section who are out to get you. And you better look at this before you submit. Many a good grant has been destroyed by a so called scientist sitting on a study section who has a personal vendetta. The painful experience leaves wounds. Hours of work for nothing when a grant comes back unscored. This is not a learning experience or for the faint hearted.

I have seen many things over the years, grant writers with a supposed midas touch who can do no wrong, but in reality they are just hired hacks, they have no idea of what the science is, they could not tell you what the difference is between an algorithm and a pipette. They know how to say the right things, like corporate speak but for the aged members of study sections too lazy to see the BS being spun. I have seen the scammers, who basically get paid on commission, but you may as well get a monkey with a keyboard to help you. The only thing that seems to work from experience is literally diving in and learning by trial and error. It is not very efficient, but pretty quickly you will find a style, a system, a rhythm.

Definitely the whole process is an emotional rollercoaster. Think of it like you are a screenwriter, your job is to continually churn out Hollywood blockbusters, except you start at the bottom every time. Can you have the raw idea, can you find collaborators who have a nugget of data that maybe is fresh off the press and ripe for an SBIR or STTR? So there is the rush of excitement when you connect things together, sometimes by accident you will find the right project, probably when you are looking for something else. Then you have to write it. It is then the swings of mood can literally drive you to the brink. Did you put enough preliminary data in, what are the weaknesses and do they undermine the whole idea? What will the reviewers think of the budget and the lack of animal studies? You can write and rewrite. You will be seeing size 11 fonts in your dreams. Should the Aims be inverted, are the biosketches up to date? Then once you have a document you need to put everything into PDFs. Perhaps the figures were low resolution, and they are now unreadable when converted, back to the drawing board. Resizing figures sends the whole text out of shape and the length of the document is too long. You can imagine by now you are pulling hairs out. This is before you fill out the submission PDF, making sure you include everything and do not forget your commons ID. Now you are ready to submit, and the hold your breath time begins. You send your package off over the ether. Then minutes later you find out in Commons there is an error. You have to go back and correct the additional page inserted in a biosketch, modify the package and repeat the submission.

Once the processing begins and there are no ERRORS, your grant / idea/ shot at glory goes off for eventual review. Hold breath again for several months until a score (or more often than not no score) ends up in the Commons account. Then the next agonizing wait to find out if it is funded. It is at this point that everyone (entrepreneurs mainly) and their dog think they can use whatever leverage they have with the program officer but to no avail..You think this is too good to be true? I have certainly glossed over many steps, flubs, just silly things really.

Can you believe that I and thousands like me went to University, basically studied until our mid 20s for this. Some of us did one or more postdocs as well and heck maybe others have even had real jobs in industry, or elsewhere. You may ask why do we put our selves through what can only be described as “a test of character”. Simple. The occasional success makes it all worthwhile. It is worse than a drug, the addiction is real. Money. You will likely see little of it yourself, it will fund the company, and if you do the science and deliver results, maybe a publication or two you stand a chance at going after a phase II and more writing. If you are a serial grant writer and PI regardless of industry or academia it must be the same feeling. When do you do the science when you are not writing?

Then there is the guilt to reckon with, you have basically become a government employee as they are funding your best ideas. Just think about it carefully, you are now part of that research enterprise, the $30 odd billion that the president just put in the budget. That is when it sinks in. You are not an entrepreneur, you are a scientist still.

If you were a real entrepreneur you would not rely on STTR/SBIRs. I have seen very few of these anyway, they have real courage and they are the ones to watch in my opinion. I can only dream that one day one of the projects I work on leads to something meaningful, but that will likely be due to luck rather than any entrepreneurial skillset.

Me, I just want to stick to science. The science I have most enjoyed was not funded. If I spent less time trying to raise money via this route I could certainly have more time for science but then I would probably starve too. Ah the choices we make.




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