Chronicles of building a startup during a pandemic: 11 lessons learned while applying to the NSF SBIR America’s Seed Fund grant

Summary:

  • Lesson #1: Just because you got rejected once during the project pitch process doesn’t mean you can’t reapply.
  • Lessons #2 & #3: Give yourself time and start all the registrations first thing, especially SAM (System for Award Management) which can take over a month. They are interdependent with one another.
  • Lesson #4: The NSF Seed Fund proposal process may appear daunting but don’t be discouraged! If you take it one step at a time, you’ll get through it before you know it.
  • Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to reach out to your program officer. They are the humans behind the process and do write you back if you have any questions. There’s a helpline you should take advantage of as well.
  • Lesson #6: Watch the pre-recorded webinars or attend them live. They are full of valuable insight.
  • Lesson #7: While letters of support are not mandatory, consider including them to strengthen your proposal.
  • Lesson #8: Follow the rules: don’t try to add anything to the application or squeak in an extra page if there’s a page limit to a section. Use the templates provided including the biographical sketch one.
  • Lesson #9: Leverage budget and justification templates available online rather than starting from scratch.
  • Lesson #10: Follow the form preparation guidelines on the seed fund site closely. They include helpful screenshots and will guide you through the whole submission process.
  • Lesson #11: Invest time in your project description which is the meat of the application and consider hiring an editor.
  • While it was a lot of work, in the end, our team learned a lot from the process and felt like it was worthwhile.

I came across the National Science Foundations’ Seed Fund through a startup slack group I am a part of. I was curious about it and decided to learn more. Called “America’s Seed Fund”, the NSF had an application process for entrepreneurs to receive a government grant to fund their startups with the goal of boosting entrepreneurship and startup-building in America. I bookmarked the page as I contemplated whether to apply or not.

Fast forward to today, we applied and learned a thing or two that we think might be helpful for other entrepreneurs going through the same deliberation. With a big caveat that we’re still waiting to hear back and these grants are often highly competitive, I think I could share some advice, having gone through what may appear to be a pretty intimidating and daunting application process.

While it was admittedly a lot of work, I would recommend any entrepreneur out there to give it a try for the following reasons:

The hard work that went into filling out all the information as part of the application was a forcing function to get our thoughts down and crystallize our value proposition. It helped us articulate the team’s complementary strengths, and why we are capable of delivering on the vision and business model within the allocated budget. It forced us to think of ourselves as a company with real-world consequences in the product and company building process.

It boosted our confidence as a company to have climbed what seemed like a daunting mountain, well aware that that there was always the chance for rejection. Having originally been designed for academics and research scientists, the application was intimidating and arduous but we managed to complete it, one small step at a time. It felt like a big accomplishment and when we submitted what ended up being a 110-page proposal, the entire team felt immensely accomplished and proud of our work.

We generated collateral that we repurposed time and time again for other pitch competitions, conversation starters, and outreach and marketing efforts. The hard work that we poured into the proposal was certainly not in vain on multiple fronts and being able to repurpose the material for a variety of other opportunities was one of them.

With that said, here we go on all our lessons learned!

Roro Innovation had just been incorporated as an LLC at that point and we had 3 team members; Filipe, our tech lead and architect, Susan, wearing various hats including operations, marketing, and finance, and myself, playing point on product and UX. I was considering funding options and was amassing a list of VCs and angel investors that we could reach out to. But all of the literature I read and the podcasts that I was listening to left me with the impression that for first time, no name entrepreneurs without the stereotypical pedigree, this would be a serious uphill battle. Bootstrapping, working off of savings, and raising a friends and family round would likely be the best way to get our company initially off the ground. Once we had some traction and users to tout, we could start the outreach to the typical VC types.

As a result, our two funding options were government grants like this one or friends and family and this seed fund route felt safer with no emotional baggage of the kind that is on the line with friends and family rounds. (We are keeping ourselves open to revisiting this.)

The process for applying was divided into 2 parts; first, a project pitch followed by the full application once you were invited to formally apply. I’ve said this before but the full proposal is very involved and requires a great amount of work. The project pitch is intended to be more light-weight so an applicant could get feedback quickly about their eligibility and upon approval, devote their resources to the heavier and more demanding proposal. I appreciated this two-step approach. It was a thoughtful way to help save time for those engaged in entrepreneurial endeavors that might not fit the bill.

The project pitch was very simple and required no more than a few hours’ worth of work. Details about it can be found here: https://seedfund.nsf.gov/project-pitch/. The following webinar has helpful information to get started as well.

n.b. Before you apply, check your eligibility which is viewable under number 2 here and screenshot below:

We first submitted the project pitch back in November 2019, pre-pandemic, and heard back a few weeks later that we had been rejected. After letting ourselves be momentarily disappointed, we decided to reapply with a stronger positioning. We did so in May, after we had launched in the Google Play store during the pandemic, and were notified that we were invited to proceed with the fuller proposal process.

This brings us to lesson #1: Do not take the first rejection too hard. You can always reapply and get a different outcome.

I then made sure to review all of the information and resources available about the application process. I found the webinars to be incredibly informative and helpful. If you cannot make the designated time, there are pre-recorded ones available on YouTube like this one:

Here’s a more updated one but they seem to cover pretty much the same content:

It was through these webinars I learned how to prioritize my time on the application.

This leads us to lesson #2: The first thing to get out of the way is to ensure your incorporated business is registered in the required places:

1) Dun and Bradstreet Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS)

2) System for Award Management (SAM)

3) Research.gov

4) Small Business Administration (SBA) Company Registration

(As a reference, this is mentioned around the 4 min and 45-second mark on the June 1 webinar linked above and the 4 min and 30-second mark on the November 23 webinar linked after it.)

The SAM registration activation took us quite a long time. As you can see in the email screenshots below, I filled in our company information on sam.gov on June 8, 2020.

However, the final registration confirmation email didn’t come until July 20, 2020. That took something like 7 weeks.

Lesson #3: I would advise you to get SAM registration out of the way as soon as you can. There’s this pdf link referenced in the June webinar that isn’t mentioned in the November one that I found particularly helpful in registering with sam.gov: https://sam.gov/SAM/transcript/Quick_Guide_for_Grants_Registrations.pdf (All helpful links are summarized far below in the post for convenience.)

The June webinar highlights number 5 on the PDF that provides helpful guidance in filling out your registration:

I found the SAM registration to be the most confusing, and had I not stumbled across that pdf mid webinar, I would’ve struggled.

Additionally, the registrations for these have inter-dependencies, meaning before you can register for sam.gov, you need a DUNS number and before you can register with research.gov, you need to have a sam.gov registration. Keep these interdependencies in mind. The user interfaces of each of these sites are admittedly not modernized but as long as you carefully follow the instructions laid out here, you should be ok.

Next, the important links for the solicitations are as follows:

Our company applied for SBIR which does not require a partnership, while STTR requires a partnership with an eligible research institution, usually a research university. Our social media aggregator app did not necessarily have to be steeped in hard research so SBIR was the right path for us.

When I first clicked the link above for the SBIR one, I thought to myself, this was entirely too much work, and was ready to give up before starting. The instructions alone were over 27 pages in small font and single spacing. The National Science Foundation Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide is 185 pages long. Given this grant was coming from the NSF, it felt like they retrofitted existing research grant applications for this entrepreneurial seed grant rather than taking a fresh approach to accommodate for less academically rigorous startup initiatives. The application language is steeped in jargon used in an academic setting like “PI (Principal Investigator)”, and the research proposal assumes in many instances that you are a research institution applying, with biosketch templates resembling how a research professor might lay out their work and research experience as opposed to an entrepreneur or working professional’s resume.

Lesson #4: Having gone through the process, I want to encourage you all not to be discouraged. We decided to change our attitude and take things one step at a time and you should too.

As indicated around the 10 min mark for both the June and November webinars, the core of the submission is around the 15-page project description. We decided to dedicate ourselves to working on this section over the course of several weeks. It consists of an elevator pitch (1 page), commercial opportunity (2–4 pages), innovation (1–3 pages), company/team (1–3 pages), and technical discussion and R&D plan (5–7 pages). The entire project description was not to exceed 15 pages.

One thing to note here is that if you submit more than 15 pages, you will be disqualified and your application will not be reviewed. If you have diagrams or images that you need to show to demonstrate the work you are undertaking, that counts in the page count so incorporate them with that in mind.

This is lesson #5: I know this because I reached out to my program officer with questions. And yes, they do write you back. They are listed with their emails on the solicitation and screenshot below as reference. Take advantage of them as resources during the proposal preparation process. It goes without saying to be thoughtful and mindful of their time.

This is also true when you get stuck in the FastLane submission process. Don’t hesitate to contact the helpline. I had trouble with the cover sheet portion of the form preparation section and contacted the helpline number and a real live person walked me through what I needed to do in order to advance to the next step. Take advantage of all these services at your disposal.

Lesson #6: I would also keep track of the America’s Seed Fund events page which hosted helpful webinars about how to submit your full proposal. While the pre-recorded webinars are incredibly helpful at 25 minutes, the full webinar often goes the full hour and includes a Q&A. I’ve reviewed both the pre-recorded webinars on YouTube as well as attended them via Webex when they were held at designated dates and times and found them to be complementary and informative.

Lesson #7: I would recommend working on the letters of support under supplementary documents soon after the project description and bio sketches, or in parallel. Here’s the detail on the solicitation:

While this is not required, I added it to my application to build a stronger case for why our company would make a great investment for the NSF. I reached out to organizations/professionals whose voice I felt would be a value add and ultimately chose the three who believed in our vision the most.

Lesson #8: Follow the rules and use what was provided to you by the NSF. Given the title of the section, “Supplementary Documents”, I thought I could add additional documents like research our team conducted as well as customer validation work but my program officer informed me that if I included additional material that was not listed in the solicitation, I would almost certainly be required to remove it when the proposal went through compliance screening.

As such, I would advise against adding anything that is not part of the application requirement list.

For Biographical Sketches, I found that with the template, I didn’t get to tell my professional story the way I wanted to. I reached out to my program officer who advised me to use the recommended template anyway. I ended up including a link to my professional resume within the template format and have no idea how it benefited or harmed our proposal.

Lesson #9: There are resources available online to assist with the budget section.

I found this template online from the University of Tennessee and used it to build out the budget section while following the instructions provided in the solicitation. I recently checked again on the University of Tennessee Office of Sponsored Programs home page and it appeared they had updated it to be a bit more complex: https://www.dropbox.com/s/gxy21k3r0jrbzw7/NSF-Sample-budget.xlsx?dl=0

Between the two, I think I prefer the simpler template but will leave it up to your preference. Towards the very bottom of the page on this link, there is a sample budget and budget justification you can reference to build out your own.

Once you have those pieces in place, the rest of the application is mostly administrative. The following comprise the big chunks of work.

Lesson #10: I would advise you to closely follow the directions provided in the FastLane guide Form Preparation followed by Form Preparation part 2 and 3. Once you’ve got those parts down, you’re basically at the home stretch.

Lesson #11: One final recommendation I have is to hire an editor for the project description if you can. It’s good to have a fresh, external pair of eyes to help you edit the document down to the essentials. Initially, one would think 15 pages is long but I would venture to guess that most folks would struggle with actually cutting the content down to fit that requirement. Ours was 20 pages long and we had to painstakingly edit it down to 15 with the help of an editor friend.

In conclusion, this seed fund opportunity is clearly not for everyone. There is likely a sizable cohort of folks that think that an entrepreneurial startup funding endeavor from a heavily bureaucratic government entity feels oxymoronic. And their application process is probably a bit too weighty and seemingly uninviting. That said, money is still money and if there’s a chance to throw your hat in the mix, I would like to encourage you to do so. I hope that the lessons learned from our experience may help you along your journey. Good luck!

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