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The Anatomy of a Winning DOE SBIR Grant

As one of 11 federal agencies participating in the Small Business Innovation Research program, the U.S. Department of Energy has a unique metric for success.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program is a highly competitive three-phase process. Small businesses seeking DOE SBIR award funds must propose innovative ideas that meet the federal government’s specific research and development needs.

So you’ve got your amazingly innovative idea ready for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program at the federal government’s Department of Energy (DOE). Now what? How can you increase your chances of actually scoring funds?

This blog will look to answer that grand question and a few more minor queries along the way. But first, let’s define the basics.


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What Does DOE SBIR Stand For?

DOE SBIR stands for “Department of Energy Small Business Innovation Research.” Established by Congress, SBIR programs at the DOE support scientific excellence and technological innovation through the investment of federal research funds, with the expressed purpose of meeting critical needs and helping build a robust national economy.

Beyond the DOE, the government program consists of 11 federal agencies with considerable research and development (R&D) budgets. These agencies set aside a fraction of their budgets for competition among small businesses, who keep the rights to any technology developed and are encouraged to commercialize the technology, should they win the award.

What Is STTR?

STTR stands for “Small Business Technology Transfer” and refers to another type of competitive awards-based program sponsored by federal government agencies.

How is STTR Different from SBIR?

The STTR program focuses primarily on expanding public-private partnerships to include collaboration with nonprofit research institutions, particularly research universities. STTR projects require that any efforts in R&D are divided between the small business and its research partner. What’s more, STTR projects allow small companies to appoint a principal investigator who the nonprofit research partner employs.

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How Many Program Offices Are Involved in the STTR/SBIR DOE Program?

Thirteen total program offices work collaboratively with the SBIR/STTR programs throughout the DOE. 

Each of these program offices considers its own high-priority research needs and program mission and the goals for the program in developing research topics.

The DOE SBIR/STTR Program Offices are as follows:

  • Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR): Discovers, develops, and deploys computational and networking capabilities to analyze, model, simulate, and predict complex phenomena important to the DOE.
  • Environmental Management (EM): Manages one of the world’s most significant groundwater and soil remediation efforts. Seeks to eliminate threats to human health and the environment and prevent pollution from ongoing government activities.
  • Basic Energy Sciences (BES): Supports fundamental research to understand, predict, and ultimately control matter and energy at the electronic, atomic, and molecular levels. Thus providing the foundation for new energy technologies and supporting DOE missions in energy, environment, and national security.
  • Fossil Energy (FE): Helps the country meet its continually growing need for secure, reasonably priced, and environmentally sound fossil energy supplies. Ensures the nation can rely on traditional resources for clean, secure, and affordable energy.
  • Biological and Environmental Research (BER): Supports transformative science and scientific user facilities to achieve a predictive understanding of complex biological, earth, and environmental systems for energy and infrastructure security and resilience.
  • Fusion Energy Sciences (FES): Expands the fundamental understanding of matter at high temperatures and densities, building the foundation needed to develop a fusion energy source. The office achieves this by studying plasma, the fourth state of matter, and how it interacts with its surroundings.

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  • Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER): Leads emergency preparedness and coordinates responses to disruptions to the energy sector, including physical and cyber-attacks, natural disasters, and manufactured events.
  • High Energy Physics (HEP): Provides humankind with new insights into the fundamental nature of energy and matter, along with the forces that control them.
  • Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation R&D (DNN R&D): Reduces the threat to national security by advancing capabilities to detect and monitor foreign nuclear fuel cycle and weapons development activities, special nuclear material movement or diversion, and nuclear explosions.
  • Nuclear Energy (NE): Advances nuclear power as a resource capable of meeting the country’s energy, environmental, and national security needs by resolving technical, cost, safety, proliferation resistance, and security barriers through research, development, and demonstration.
  • Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE): Supports early-stage R&D of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that seek to make energy more affordable while strengthening the reliability, resilience, and security of the U.S. electric grid.
  • Nuclear Physics (NP): Researches ways to understand the structure and interactions of atomic nuclei and nature’s fundamental forces and particles as manifested in nuclear matter.
  • Electricity, Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE): Provides national leadership to ensure that the country’s energy delivery system is secure, resilient, and reliable. Develops new technologies to enhance the infrastructure that brings electricity into every aspect of American life.

Why Does DOE Use a Letter of Intent?

A Letter of Intent (LOI) is a document that outlines the preliminary commitment of one party to conduct business with another. 

It declares and makes official the main terms of the prospective deal. 

The DOE uses a Letter of Intent during the SBIR/STTR process mainly because of a Congressional requirement to shorten the review process. An LOI gives DOE program managers the power to identify appropriate technical reviewers before submitting the complete application.

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How Do I Prepare a DOE SBIR/STTR Phase I Grant Application?

The Phase I Grant Application process for the DOE can seem like a daunting prospect at first glance—and for the most part, it is.

The keyword to remember is “competitive,” in that netting an SBIR grant from the DOE is highly competitive. As such, the application process should be slow and methodical.

You should take each step as seriously as possible, researching and reviewing your work closely.

If your grant application is completed in a week or two, that almost certainly means it’s under-developed and poorly prepared.

For a well-thought-out DOE SBIR Phase I grant application, you and your team should dedicate at least 300 hours for completion, with a skilled grant writer leading the way.

As luck would have it, the DOE recently updated its instructions for completing an SBIR Phase I grant application. Read through the document before even starting the process—it will give you a leg up on the competition!

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What is an SBIR DOE Project Narrative?

Essentially, the SBIR DOE Project Narrative is the heart of your proposal. 

This research proposal tells the story of your innovation, from research tactics down to the nuts and bolts of your project. It’s generally broken down into the following outline:

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  • Cover Page
  • Proprietary Data Legend
  1. Identification and Significance of the Problem or Opportunity, and Technical Approach
  2. Anticipated Public Benefits
  3. Technical Objectives
  4. Work Plan
  5. Performance Schedule
  6. Facilities/Equipment
  7. Research Institution
  8. Other Consultants and Subcontractors
  9. Bibliography and References Cited

Before you begin working on your Project Narrative, you must be working from the DOE’s most recent Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), a notice on grants.gov of a federal grant funding opportunity. As the DOE often updates its FOAs, always check the DOE website and download the most recent PDF.

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What is an SBIR DOE Commercialization Plan?

The Commercialization Plan requires you to describe your company’s strategy for commercializing the technology you develop for the DOE SBIR. 

To achieve this, you must provide specific information on the need within the market for your technology and the size of the market you intend to target. You should also include a schedule that demonstrates the quantitative commercialization results your company expects to achieve. 

For SBIR Phase I, the DOE requires a two-page Commercialization Plan uploaded through grants.gov in a specific section referred to as “Other — Phase I Commercialization Plan” in the DOE FOA. 

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In recent years, the DOE has placed an increased emphasis on commercialization in Phase I, stating that “if the Commercialization Plan is not included at the time of application submission, your application will be administratively declined without review.”


What are the Topics for SBIR DOE Phase I?

SBIR DOE Phase I topics include an exhaustive list of possible grant projects in the scientific and engineering field. 

A recent release by the DOE communicates a plethora of topics, running the gamut from “Technologies for Managing and Analyzing Complex Data in Science and Engineering” to “Technology to Facilitate the Use of Near-Term Quantum Computing Hardware.”

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Who is Eligible for SBIR DOE Phase I?

Only small businesses in the U.S. are eligible to participate in SBIR DOE Phase I.


Applicants for DOE SBIR/STTR must meet the following criteria at the time of their Phase I awards:

  • Independently owned and operated
  • Organized for-profit
  • Principal place of business in the U.S.
  • Small businesses structure with 500 or fewer employees, including affiliates
  • Meet the benchmark requirements for progress toward commercialization
  • Present ideas that align with the DOE’s mission

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Who Can be a Principal Investigator in an SBIR DOE Phase I?

Every DOE SBIR/STTR proposal must designate a single individual who will serve as Principal Investigator (PI) on the proposed project.

This person takes on the overall responsibility for the project—as such, they must possess the education, work ethic, and project management experience to complete the job.

As for official eligibility, the PI must be primarily employed by the small business during the SBIR award period.

This means the PI cannot be full-time employed anywhere else during the DOE SBIR award process.

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How Much Are SBIR DOE Phase I Awards?

The DOE’s SBIR Phase I awards fall into two monetary categories: $150,000 or $225,000, depending on the project. DOE SBIR Phase I awards have project periods of six to 12 months, with the final timeframe contingent on the scope of the feasibility effort.

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Who Has Won SBIR DOE Phase I?

Though the DOE’s SBIR Phase I awards constitute an extremely competitive process, plenty of small businesses have walked away with substantial grants that have helped to fund an array of successful projects. 

These DOE success stories can inspire small businesses on the hunt for project grants.


One such success story comes from Heliotrope Technologies, an Alameda, CA-based small business with 40 employees. 

Working on the next generation of smart glass, Heliotrope developed Universal Smart Window Coating, designed to limit heat gain generated from the sun without blocking visible light. This technology allows building owners to reduce energy usage by 50 percent. 

Guillermo Garcia, co-founder and Chief Science Officer at Heliotrope, said that SBIR/STTR grants help advance the technology through funding while also putting the company in a position to attract future investment through private financing. 

Guillermo Garcia, co-founder and Chief Science Officer at Heliotrope

Guillermo Garcia
co-founder and Chief Science Officer at Heliotrope

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“[SBIR funding] was critical in the early stages of the company because it was a reliable source of capital that helped us address technical risk flagged by future investors,” said Garcia, whose company received a combined $1,150,000 in phase I and II awards. “With these funds, we were able to mitigate the technical risk and land private investment. Without this aid, we would have never de-risked the product and landed future [quality] investment.”


The same can be said for NanoGraf Technologies, an even smaller company of 15 employees (at the time of their grant application), based out of Chicago, IL. Formerly known as SiNode Systems, they developed battery anode material to overcome existing limitations on energy and power density while minimizing costs. 

After receiving Phase I and II funds totaling $1,150,000, SiNode was able to form NanoGraf Technologies with JNC Corporation, a Tokyo-based specialty chemical manufacturer. The $4.5 million joint venture now focuses on commercializing materials for the lithium-ion battery industry. 

Amazingly, Samir Mayekar, Co-Founder & CEO of NanoGraf, was part of a team that applied for an SBIR grant while still graduate students.

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Samir Mayekar
 Co-Founder & CEO of NanoGraf

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“One of our entrepreneurship professors encouraged us to look at the SBIR program, and we immediately applied for a Phase I award when we found a topic that was directly related to our technology area,” said Mayekar. “We learned how to communicate our technology roadmap and critical milestones, found a lab space outside of Northwestern University where we would spin out if awarded an SBIR, and assembled a qualified team to advance the company.”


Then there’s Energy Sense Finance (ESF), a company that proves you only need a handful of dedicated team members to win a grant and make a difference. Based out of Tampa, FL, ESP boasted a mere four employees at the time of its award, which helped them develop technology to help realtors, appraisers, lenders, insurance companies, solar installers, homeowners, and home buyers calculate the value that solar adds to a home. 

As a matter of chance, ESF founder and CEO Jamie Johnson had signed up for the DOE SBIR newsletter and saw the funding opportunity for a solar subtopic. That chance reading eventually led to a combined $1,725,000 in Phase I and II awards.

Headshot of Jamie Johnson - CEO of Energy Sense Finance

Jamie Johnson
Energy Sense Finance Founder and CEO

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“Getting SBIR grant funding from DOE gets you an audience. It shows the world that we’re innovating,” said Johnson. “Getting direct funding from DOE increased the size and depth of our network. For example, by working with DOE, we established deep connections with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and had great discussions with Solar City, SunPower, and other installers.”

Team 80 Clears A Path To Success with DOE SBIR Phase I Awards

The DOE’s stated mission is to “ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.” Team 80 believes in this mission and knows that innovative small businesses are strapped for cash, time, and work power. That’s why we step in to manage your accounting concerns—so that you can focus on the task at hand and energize your team on the way to securing that all-important SBIR grant money.

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.