If I don’t win, should I get a debrief and try again?
Approximately one out of ten Phase I SBIR or STTR proposals submitted to the Department of Energy will receive an award. Therefore, there’s a good chance that your first proposal won’t win. So when you receive an e-mail from the Department of Energy notifying you that you have not won – should you give up? The answer to that question is simple – NO – you should not give up. You will be disappointed given the amount of effort that you put into developing your application – but you should not give up.
Proposal writing is a skill and learning what a potential new customer wants is an art. It takes time to learn both– so, you should not give up. Instead take every opportunity to learn what mistakes you made [if any] and learn what you can do better in the future.
If you receive a rejection notice from the Department of Energy, it will come via e-mail. The notice will contain information about how you can access the reviewer’s comments from PAMS – The Portfolio Analysis and Management System. The first thing you should do is download the reviewer’s comments and review them in detail. You will notice that each reviewer’s comments are grouped into the three Merit Review categories that were discussed in Tutorial 7. See if there is a pattern to their responses. Don’t only notice those items with which they found fault, but also those items which they found to be strengths.
In the case of DOE – receipt of the reviewer’s comments constitutes the debrief. Not every Agency provides this level of feedback and it can be most instructive, although you may not take it that way the first time you experience a proposal rejection. But, let’s look at what you can learn from the feedback.
One of the primary evaluation criteria is the Scientific/Technical Approach. If your feedback indicates that the approach was not innovative; that the challenge was not significant; or that you did not make a thorough presentation – what can you do next time? Talk to the topic manager; review the literature; and have a solid red team (see Tutorial 31) review to assure that what you propose in the future is innovative, clearly articulated, and most of all, responsive to the what’s sought in the topic description.
The next criterion is the Ability to Carry Out the Project in a Cost Effective Manner. Let’s assume that the feedback raises questions about the qualifications of the PI; questions the facilities and your work plan. What can you do? Spend more time at the outset evaluating how you can strengthen the profile of your team by including contingent hires, a university, or a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. Take the time before the next cycle to reach out to people in anticipation of the next opportunity to submit a grant application.
The final Merit criterion is “Impact”. If the feedback provided indicates that the anticipated results are unlikely to have a significant technical or economic impact; are unlikely to lead to a marketable product or attract other funding – it is likely that you did not spend enough time considering the commercial impact of your work or conversely you considered it, but did not provide a clear explanation as to its benefit.
Take the opportunity to learn from every rejection and develop a plan to win the next time around. There is ample evidence that companies that write more proposals, win more proposals – but only if they also learn from the feedback provided.