How to write a winning grant proposal: An expert guide

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In this article freelance medical writer for Kolabtree Laura Moro-Martin, MSc, PhD, provides tips to write a successful grant proposal, focusing specifically on the NIH SBIR.  

Writing a grant proposal may look like a colossal and daunting task. There is no doubt that competition is extreme out there, and grant success rates are low nowadays. Although we cannot ensure that you will get the funding, this article aims to provide some general insights and a few tips—using a grant proposal for a new medical device as an example—that can make your writing easier and increase the possibilities that your project gets selected.

Before starting to write your grant proposal, there are a few key ‘ingredients’ that you need to take into consideration:

1. Finding a call for proposals

There is a wide range of funding agencies and opportunities depending on your field of work, country, and type of organization. You need to identify the call that is more pertinent to the need or problem that your project aims to address, and carefully check that your team fulfils all the eligibility and admissibility requirements. Identify the keywords of the call, which should also be mentioned several times along your proposal. In order to have up-to-date information about open proposals, you will need to keep an eye on the websites, social media and/or newsletters from funding agencies, and share this information with colleagues and collaborators.

NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program

As an example, let’s assume that you are a USA-based start-up company, small R&D firm, or small manufacturing company with an R&D department that is seeking to commercialize an innovative biomedical technology, for example a new medical device. You may be interested in applying for funding from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program from the USA National Institutes of Health (NIH). SBIR is a three-phase program that funds Phase 1 for concept development (feasibility) and Phase 2 for prototype development, but not Phase 3 (commercialization). Examples of successful SBIR Phase 1 and Phase 2 applications from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) can be found in this link.

There is a somehow ‘equivalent’ program for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) established in an EU Member State or a Horizon 2020 (H2020) associated country, called European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot (previously know as SME Instrument). For early-stage research and innovation, projects can seek funding from EIC Pathfinder pilot. The EIC Accelerator Pilot builds on the SME Instrument Phase 2 and provides grant-only support as well as support in the form of blended finance (combining grant and equity). In addition to submitting your grant proposal, if selected you will be invited to Brussels to pitch in front of a jury, so you will have to get your speaker’s abilities ready as well! More info about how to prepare your proposal for these types of EU programs can be found here. An annotated proposal template for EIC SME instrument Phase 1 and Phase 2 can be downloaded here.

2. The ‘right’ team

A majority of calls for funding do not accept single applicants, but instead require the creation of a consortium. Many granting agencies are particularly interested in fostering international and multi-disciplinary collaborations and public-private partnerships including academic institutions, companies, and other organizations. Even before you identify a suitable call for proposals, you will need to have the ‘right’ team of partners with different capacities, personnel, infrastructure, and skills to perform the different tasks that your project proposes. Having the ‘right’ team means not only finding partners that are interested in your proposal, who have a strong reputation or a good list of publications, but also finding people with aligned interests, that are collaborative and really committed to contributing to the success of the project. The last problem that you would like to face is that one of your partners in the consortium is not answering your emails and phone calls asking for an essential document the day before the deadline. Writing a grant proposal is an intense and time-consuming task, so having a good professional (and human) connection with all your collaborators is always a good starting point. Working with a freelance grant writer can help you ensure that you have the right expertise and skills that can help you win funding. 

You can find a tutorial on ‘building a winning team’ for the SBIR program in this link.

3. Effective communication

In a big international consortium, where partners can be separated by hundreds or thousands of kilometres and several time zones, having a dynamic and fluid communication will ease the preparation of the proposal. In most cases, the communication will rely on the use of digital tools, including e-mails, videoconferences or phone calls. Fortunately, we have many alternatives—the ‘classical’ Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, and others—so put them to good use for effective communication with all stakeholders.

4. Extremely methodical organization

Sooner than later you will be dealing with an immense amount of documentation ranging from bibliographic references and non-disclosure agreements to grant forms, clinical protocols, annexes, and much more. Not only that, but you will have to deal with all the successive versions that you will be creating and modifying several times along the writing process (including the infamous ‘version1.0’, ‘v1.2.4’, ‘v2.3.6.8.5’, ‘v2.3.6.8.5_final’, ‘v2.3.6.8.5_final_definitive’, etc.). You need to be exceedingly methodical -even ‘maniac’- in the management of all the information and documentation, and the correct use of digital tools will make a great difference. If your organization is already using a document or project management system, it can be your ally. Otherwise, you can select the digital tools that best suit your objectives and your organization among the wide range of options available for document, task or project management (some examples with different features include Slack, Trello or monday.com). It is difficult to make recommendations because the choice is vast, a bit personal and depends on many factors, but please feel free to share your preferred tools in the comments below.

5. Early planning and good time management

The general rule is that ‘it is never too early to start writing a grant proposal’. Preparing a grant proposal requires a great investment of time and effort with no guarantee of success. Unless your job is specifically writing proposals -and, in that case, you may have to simultaneously prepare more than one, you will have to juggle with several other tasks at the same time. So the earlier you start planning and writing—preferably a few months before the deadline—the less you will have to rush at the end. Effective time management will help you to avoid those days of coffee-fuelled late-night work just before the deadline. In many cases, you will know in advance that a new call for proposals is going to open, so take advantage and start working on it. You will be one step ahead if the consortium has already been created. Although the final requirements and forms will vary depending on the call, there is some documentation that you can start collecting and preparing in advance. This includes, for example, the description of partners, supporting references, analysis of market and competitors, ethical approval, impact and innovation of your proposal, organization of work packages and tasks, etc. You will be able to adapt this material to the specific proposal later on. Our final recommendation is to avoid submitting your grant proposal on the same day of the deadline. Website overload, computer errors, the wrong version of one of the documents… all can make that you waste a good amount of time and effort in a proposal that is not even considered.

In this link you can find a tutorial that will help you to ‘develop a proposal preparation schedule’ for the SBIR program.

6. An innovative and impactful idea/solution

Last but not least, you will have to identify the need or problem that your project seeks to address and that requires funding. The main aim of your grant proposal will be to convince the funding agency that your solution is the most suitable to overcome this need or problem. The main criteria that reviewers will use to assess your proposal include its innovativeness, impact or significance, and feasibility. But many other factors will influence the final decision depending on the agency’s key interest, for example, technological merit, commercialization potential, proposed approach, team and capabilities, adequacy of budget allocation, available facilities, etc.

Click here for a tutorial to ‘understand the proposal evaluation criteria’ of the SBIR program, which include ‘innovation’, ‘experience, qualifications and facilities’, and ‘commercial potential and feasibility’. Additional review criteria from NIH SBIR include protection for humans subjects; inclusion of women, minorities, and children; vertebrate animals; biohazards; resubmission; renewal; and revision.

Elements of a grant proposal

There are a few common elements to a majority of grant proposals, although they may appear under different headings (you will need to use the exact heading mentioned in the call):

  •   Overview/abstract/executive summary: This is a summary of the main points of your proposal. It should include the need or problem that you are addressing, your objectives, the expected outcomes and how you will achieve them, how you will evaluate your project, the importance and/or comparative advantage of your project, and a brief description of the team. The mission and purpose of the grant can guide you in this section, so be sure to include the keywords of the call. It is advisable to write this overview after you have written all the other sections.
  •   Need or problem statement/background: Identify the gap (need or problem) that your project aims to address. First, you will have to establish the context or background of the problem by conducting a literature review and summarizing the key information that helps to understand the significance of your project. Keep this section informative, clear and concise, but also scientifically sound.
  •   Project description/approach/objectives and methodology: Briefly describe your project, explaining your general and specific objectives, the expected outcomes, how you will achieve those outcomes (work plan and methodology), methods for internal or external evaluation, and the timeline. Many calls will ask you to further develop these aspects in other sections of the proposal.

For any quantitative study, in particular those involving animals or human subjects—such as the example of the grant proposal for a new medical device—statistics will be a key component of the approach/methodology. Within this section, or in a separate one, you will need to explain details about the study subjects (study design, sample size calculation, and subject selection), data collection (type of measurements, type of data and why these data will answer your questions) and data analysis (the questions that you are trying to answer, the variables involved, the procedures and how you will know the answer). Reviewers will carefully assess this part since it will determine the success or failure of the project and the adequate use of resources. Although it is out of the scope of this article to go deeper into the details of statistics for grant applications, in the ‘additional resources’ you can find some references containing further information.

  •   Impact: Explain the likelihood for the project to exert a sustained, powerful influence on the research field involved. This likelihood depends on its significance, the team, the innovativeness, and approach used, among other factors. Some agencies, such as H2020 programs, also require a communication, dissemination and exploitation strategy (can be a separated section).
  •   Budget: You need to detail the funding that you are asking for and the reasons, including the estimated costs of all materials, equipment, travelling expenses, personnel, etc. (refer to the specific call to understand the use of the funding, since not all grants cover, for example, personnel costs or subcontracting). Normally the budget is provided in formatted tables.
  •   Other supporting documents: In most of the cases you will be asked to provide supporting documents such as a cover letter, personnel biographies, letters of support from third parties partnering with you or interested in your project, the study protocol, etc.

Letters of support from allied organizations or groups are a good way to differentiate your SBIR proposal, providing credibility and supporting its commercialization potential.

If you are applying for a grant for a clinical study, you will need to include a clinical study protocol. The main elements of the study protocol, as explained in more detail in this article, are the executive summary, specific aims, background and significance, preliminary results, and research design and methods.

 Tips to write a successful grant proposal 

For a successful grant proposal, not only what you write (i.e. the content), but also how you write (i.e. the form) acquires great importance. Although a well-written proposal cannot ensure success, a poorly written one may reduce your possibilities of obtaining funding. The following is a non-exhaustive list of advice to help you improve the ‘form’ of your grant proposal:

  • Strictly follow the guidelines from the specific call regarding formatting, fonts, citations, use of figures, page and word limits, etc.
  • Use only easily readable fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman or Courier (but, again, you should check the specific guidelines).
  • Use adequate formatting, spacing and font size to make reading pleasant (reviewers are humans too and they will be grateful after reading a large number of proposals).
  • Write clearly and concisely. Do not include information that you are not directly asked for, avoid rambling, and leave the creativity for the conceptualization of the project.
  • Avoid jargon and define technical terms (reviewers may not be experts in your specific sub-specialty).
  • Include supporting references. Your proposal should be scientifically rigorous and sound, even if you work outside from academia. However, all important information should be provided within the proposal, since reviewers do not necessarily have extra time to get information from references. You can find more information about how to conduct a systematic literature review and meta-analysis in this article.
  • Carefully check grammar and spelling along the whole proposal. Read it several times on different days, since typos are sometimes easy to miss. If needed, hire a scientific translator or a scientific editor.
  • Include relevant figures, schemes, and tables. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Share and discuss the proposal draft with your collaborators in the project, and ensure that they all agree with the final version to be submitted.
  • Read the submission guidelines attentively and check that all your documents are correct before submitting them.

This article offers a general approach to grant writing that is applicable across a range of contexts, but it is out of our scope to provide tailored advice in specific disciplines or topics. In any case, you will need to strictly follow the instructions from the funding agency and the specific call that you are applying to. Our final advice for preparing a proposal is don’t give up, and keep on writing. Use rejection as a means to improve your grant proposal. Good luck!

Need to hire a freelance grant writer or a scientific writer? Consult experts directly on Kolabtree. Post your project and get quotes for free! 

References and additional resources

 


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About Author

Dr. Laura Moro-Martin is an experienced science writer and scientific consultant with a solid background in health and biomedical research. She has more than 10 years of experience in biotechnology and biomedical research, mainly in infectious diseases and cancer. She has a PhD in Medicine and a Master in Science Communication and Journalism. She was awarded a Marie Curie postdoctoral researcher in 2015. She has been a freelance scientific-medical writer or advisor and can consult on projects involving grant writing and project proposals (H2020 and SBIR), digital news, monographic articles, scientific editing, systematic reviews, educational materials (online Master's), and others.

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