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Everything You Need To Know About Winning An NSF SBIR Government Grant

Take the mystery and headaches out of the NSF SBIR application and post-award process. 

Powered by the National Science Foundation (NSF SBIR), America’s Seed Fund supports startups and small businesses with research and development funding to make innovative ideas possible. The NSF SBIR program focuses on transforming scientific discovery into products and services with commercial potential.

The federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is designed to expand, diversify, and accelerate innovation in a host of areas. Of the 11 federal agencies that partake in SBIR, the National Science Foundation (NSF) boasts a program that’s perhaps most worthy of a closer inspection.

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What Does NSF SBIR Stand For?

NSF SBIR stands for National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research. The NSF small business innovation program has significantly evolved over the last 20 years, turning its attention toward commercializing innovations derived from federal research and development (R&D). And since 2015, small businesses on the receiving end of the NSF SBIR STTR program have realized more than $6.5 billion in private investments.

Why is it Called America’s Seed Fund?

America’s Seed Fund powered by NSF is the more modern, less academic official name for NSF SBIR. Officials at the NSF changed their program’s name to America’s Seed Fund because they felt the moniker more accurately conveys the program’s benefits. Seed funding, or seed capital, is the amount of money used to start a business, fund research, or develop a product. “America’s Seed Fund” expresses the importance of the program in the context of the country at large.

Do You Need a Ph.D. to Get an NSF SBIR?

Every project has a Principal Investigator (PI). Also called the technical lead, this is the person capable of tracking and communicating any progress made in pursuit of the NSF SBIR award. The PI stays in contact with the federal program director during the process, monitoring the performance and ensuring performance goals are met on time. The PI is also responsible for submitting the required reports to the NSF.

The PI is not required to have a Ph.D. or any other degree. However, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers can be the PI on an NSF SBIR Phase I proposal. In fact, many NSF SBIR awards also have PIs with no graduate training.

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What is a Project Pitch?

The Project Pitch is the written document you and your team put together to attempt to get funding from the NSF SBIR program. This process helps startups learn if their proposal is a good fit for America’s Seed Fund. There are generally four critical components of the project pitch:

  1. The Technology Innovation (Up to 500 words): A general description of the technical innovation of your Phase I project, with a brief rundown of the origins of the innovation and how it meets the program’s mandate of supporting the R&D of high-impact ideas.
  2. The Technical Objectives and Challenges (Up to 500 words): A discussion of how and why the R&D, or technical work, will prove that the project is technically feasible. In this step, you must also describe how your work will make your product commercially viable and impactful.
  3. The Market Opportunity (Up to 250 words): Illustrate the profile of the intended customer and any pain points that will be the commercial focus of your project.
  4. The Company and Team (Up to 250 words): Characterize the background and current status of your small business, including team members who intend to lead the technical and commercial efforts of your project. 

What Are the SBIR NSF Topics?

Topics for the NSF SBIR program include a broad range of technological applications intended to help people while also proving to be commercially viable innovations. For a complete list of NSF SBIR topics and subtopics, start your research here. Here are the main topics for the NSF SBIR:

  • Advanced Analytics 
  • Advanced Manufacturing
  • Advanced Materials 
  • Artificial Intelligence 
  • Augmented and Virtual Reality 
  • Biological Technologies 
  • Biomedical Technologies 
  • Chemical Technologies 
  • Cloud and High-Performance Computing 
  • Cybersecurity and Authentication 
  • Digital Health 
  • Distributed Ledger 
  • Energy Technologies 
  • Environmental Technologies 
  • Human-Computer Interaction 

  • Instrumentation and Hardware Systems 
  • Internet of Things 
  • Learning and Cognition Technologies 
  • Medical Devices 
  • Mobility 
  • Nanotechnology 
  • Other Topics
  • Pharmaceutical Technologies 
  • Photonics 
  • Power Management 
  • Quantum Information Technologies 
  • Robotics
  • Semiconductors
  • Space 
  • Wireless Technologies

What are the NSF SBIR Deadlines?

Small businesses can submit a Project Pitch for an NSF SBIR program award at any time during the submission window. Submission windows are rolling and occur throughout the year. Generally speaking, submission windows are as follows:

  • February 14 — March 5
  • March 6 — June 4
  • June 5 — September 3
  • September 4 — December 3

Contact the federal representative with the NSF SBIR program for specific details regarding all upcoming deadlines.

How Do You Apply for an NSF SBIR Phase I Award?

NSF proposals must be submitted through either the NSF FastLane System, Research.gov, or Grants.gov. NSF SBIR program applicants are required to submit the aforementioned Project Pitch outlining the project objectives, technical innovation, and associated technical risks. Projects that seem to be a good fit will be officially invited to submit a full proposal.

How Long is NSF SBIR Phase I?

NSF SBIR Phase I funding is intended to support projects from six to 12 months in duration. Small businesses are typically notified of the award decision between four to six months after the submission deadline. 

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How Much is the NSF SBIR Phase I Award?

Having recently adjusted for inflation, NSF increased the SBIR Phase I funding amount to a maximum of $256,000 to better support the nation’s startups and small businesses.

What Do I Need To Do To Revise My Phase I Budget?

Budgeting can be a fluid process in the world of NSF SBIR programs. Projects expand or contract, team members come and go, unforeseen breakthroughs happen—it all means you’ll need to submit a revised budget. To do so, both a project’s PI and sponsored research office must send in a revision.

NSF SBIR budget revisions must include a Revised Budget Justification, uploaded or entered via a Budget Impact Statement Module. To submit a revised budget, follow the steps presented by America’s Seed Fund.

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What is NSF’s Commercialization Assistance Program (CAP)?

The NSF SBIR program offers plenty of support for first-time applicants and awardees who need continued assistance during the funding process. One such support system is the Commercialization Assistance Program (CAP). 

A free program, CAP offers additional resources and significant one-on-one guidance from seasoned advisors in developing the business strategy associated with the Phase I research and preparation of Phase II proposals.

What are the NSF SBIR Phase I Reporting Requirements?

NSF SBIR Phase I awardees must provide formal reports when the Phase I award period ends and when it’s time to submit their Phase II proposal (more on that later). Phase I reporting requirements are as follows:

  1. Cover Page
  2. Technical Narrative
  3. Report Submission via Research.gov

America’s Seed Fund has all the details you need to complete each step!

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How Do You Apply for an NSF SBIR Phase II Award?

The purpose of the NSF SBIR Phase II award is to provide the necessary funds you need to continue the R&D that began in Phase I. Only recent NSF SBIR awardees may apply for Phase II funding, and you are permitted to submit only one Phase II proposal per Phase I award. And finally, if your Phase II application is declined, you will not be able to resubmit it

Check out the NSF SBIR Phase I and II Road Map for all the details you need to apply.

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How Long is NSF SBIR Phase II?

SBIR Phase II projects typically run for 24 months, though deviations are possible depending on the circumstances of the proposer and the research project.

How Much is the Phase II NSF SBIR Award?

As of summer 2020, Phase II awards are funded up to $1 million. This amount includes up to $50,000 to be used by the Phase II awardee for commercial assistance.

What are the NSF SBIR Phase II Reporting Requirements?

NSF SBIR Phase II reporting requirements include the submission of your Phase II proposal through FastLane. One specific requirement of this process is an updated Technical Narrative (no more than 15 pages). You must include this narrative as a supplementary document to your Phase II proposal. Check out these instructions from America’s Seed Fund. 

How Long Does it Take to Hear Back from NSF SBIR?

Typically, the process can take anywhere from three to 12 months. The time to hear back about an NSF SBIR application is highly variable, as most NSF grants are peer-reviewed by a panel of academics. This process ensures a significant length of time is naturally built into the system.

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Why Do You Need an Accountant for Your NSF’s Awardee Cash Management Service (ACM$)?

The Award Cash Management $ervice (ACM$) manages NSF awards payments and the post-award process. Each time funds are requested, ACM$ requires the submission of award-level payment amounts. 

An accountant is crucial when approaching ACM$. A trained accountant (or team of accountants) helps you if you receive an error message when attempting to add ACM$ user permissions, answers all general post-award financial questions, addresses concerns related to payment requests or refunds, and determines if there’s any discrepancy between the total award value stated and the total federal funds displayed in ACM$.

In general, an accountant shepherds you through what can be a confusing and harrowing post-award process. 


What is a No-Cost Extension?

A no-cost extension allows an awardee to extend the project period end date and budget period by up to 12 months for the sole purpose of completing grant activities.

Dig Deep Into America’s Seed Fund With Help from Team 80

As you can tell, there’s a lot to manage when submitting proposals for NSF SBIR phases I and II. The writing, research, and development are all daunting steps in the journey toward funding your innovative idea. Team 80 relieves some pressure by taking your accounting worries out of the equation. We’ve seen many small businesses through the wilderness of financial doubt and uncertainty—contact us today, and we’ll do the same for you.

Team 80 CEO Sarah Sinicki

Sarah Sinicki

Team 80 CEO

Sarah is a leader focused on serving small businesses in various industries. She has worked with a multitude of companies over the last 25 years and loves helping business owners find success. Sarah is genuinely committed to unburdening Team 80 clients so that they have the freedom to focus on their business. In her free time, you can find her spending time with her husband, two kids, and her Yorkies, Marley and Ziggy. When she is not helping business owners, you can find her in a Reb3l Groove class dancing it out. Sarah is also an avid Colorado Avalanche fan, so if you ever want to talk about hockey, she’s your gal.