Testing The SBIR Waters with an NSF Project Pitch

I assume you’re familiar with the slang phrase “testing the waters” – just as it might be wise to check the temperature of water before you take a leap into it, you may want to casually check out someone’s opinion of your product before you design & build a warehouse full of that trinket, or gauge the success of your idea with some subject matter experts to help determine its feasibility before you proceed.

And just to get the acronyms out of the way for those who may not be familiar – SBIR is ‘Small Business Innovation Research’ and its sister program, STTR, is ‘Small Business Technology Transfer.’ Together these two programs are considered the nation’s largest source of early stage/high risk funding for start-ups and small businesses. But there are typically some hurdles in gaining access to that pot of funding. 

Several of those general problems or hurdles most people have with committing to writing an SBIR/STTR proposal include: (1) they may not yet have been able to gauge the value or uniqueness of their innovative idea, (2) you may not have the time required (typically a minimum of six months) to devote to writing a full SBIR proposal just to have it turned down, and (3) it may be somewhat unclear as to which of the eleven federal agencies offering SBIR/STTR funding you should apply to. Now back to the idea of testing the waters.

NSF Provides Review Assistance

One of those eleven federal agencies who award SBIR/STTR funds, the National Science Foundation (NSF), offers the opportunity to submit a relatively simple project pitch before committing to a full proposal. You answer just four narrative questions and NSF will let you know if your innovation meets their objectives of the promise of commercial success and/or societal impact, and if it involves a level of technical risk.

If the NSF likes your pitch and wants to see you develop it further, they will invite you to submit a full Phase 1 SBIR proposal (yes, more work but with great reward). And heck, if they don’t invite you to submit a proposal they will tell you why – and every good entrepreneur will take that as an opportunity for improvement.


How Do I Get Assistance?

These NSF Project Pitches are submitted directly to their website. The four narrative questions you answer are:

  1. The Technology Innovation (up to 500 words) – Describe the technical innovation that would be the focus of a Phase 1 SBIR project.


  1. The Technical Objectives and Challenges (up to 500 words) – Describe the R&D or technical work to be done in a Phase 1 project, including a discussion of how and why the proposed work will help prove that the product or service is technically feasible and/or will significantly reduce technical risk.


  1. The Market Opportunity (up to 250 words) – Describe the customer profile and pain point(s) that will be the near-term commercial focus.


  1. The Company and Team (up to 250 words) – Describe the background and current status of the applicant small business, including key team members.


For more information on the NSF Project Pitch and to submit your own proposal, visit their website at seedfund.nsf.gov Prior to writing your proposal I strongly recommend that you reach out to the resources available for helping you to determine your pitch idea and make it as strong of a presentation as possible. You can contact me with the In-Tech Program, or there are multiple business innovation hubs, launch labs, and business advisors across the state.

I have worked with several clients now who meet the profile of not quite fitting into the SBIR request that any of the federal agencies were looking for. And instead of retrofitting their idea to meet a specific agency request, they were able to pitch to the National Science Foundation and say, “look at this great idea I have for you.”

About the Author


A native of Morgan County, West Virginia, Mary Hott earned her Master of Science in Information Systems from the Northeastern University Graduate School of Engineering in Boston, a Bachelor of Arts from the New School for Social Research in New York City, and a marketing certification from Harvard University Extension School. She is also a Certified Business Advisor (CBA®), certified through Kent State University.

Before joining WV SBDC in 2015 as a business coach, Hott spent more than 20 years in Boston’s high-tech business community, first as a software engineer then transitioning into product management and business development. She returned to West Virginia in 2006 and ran the non-profit Morgan Arts Council for six years as its executive director. Hott has twice launched and grown her own businesses: first a consulting software company in New England and, in her home state of West Virginia, a music production company.