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Securing research dollars requires knack for grant writing

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Slowly but surely, Wisconsin companies are getting over their comparative shyness about asking for federal dollars, but do they know how to ask?

The know-how relates to writing grants in response to the solicitations of federal government agencies and private foundations. For them, the term “unmet need” is one to remember because unless the technology you’re developing solves some sort of problem, or represents the enhancement of an existing technology, grant money will not be forthcoming.

“One of the top reasons that grants fail is that people don’t demonstrate the need and put it in a persuasive manner.” – Roe Parker, Roe M. Parker & Associates

Granting organizations provide some guidance, but unless the grant application clearly explains potential scientific and commercial impacts, the application will be met with a collective yawn. “The key thing is to establish the need for your program,” said Roe Parker of Roe M. Parker & Associates, who teaches a course in grant writing at Madison College. “One of the top reasons that grants fail is that people don’t demonstrate the need and put it in a persuasive manner.”

When pursuing federal grants, there is ample opportunity to be persuasive with different types and phases of grants. Federal granting agencies award Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants, and there are distinct phases. Phase I grants, which typically involve technological proof-of-concept, usually are in the $100,000 range. Phase II grants of up to $750,000 are issued to continue research and development begun in Phase I, and a third phase is designed to take recipients to the point of commercialization. That’s usually where young companies begin to pursue private equity and where investors view grants as non-repeatable income, not a realistic part of company valuation.

With these granting fundamentals in mind, IB spoke to several experts to get some grant-writing advice that can be applied to federal or foundation grants.

Grant writing is hard work

According to Parker, a federal grant proposal might consist of 20 pages of written text and another 25 pages of attachments. “There is big money, but you certainly can face a number of requirements,” he noted. “It’s hard work to prepare the applications. It takes a large amount of time to prepare them.”

Parker identified two types of approaches by federal agencies: In one scenario, money is granted with some requirements, and applicants should expect their finances to be audited, especially with larger grants. In the second scenario, the granting agency works with the recipient as an active partner in organizing the grant program, which makes some entrepreneurs uncomfortable.

The granting process begins with solicitations from any of the various granting agencies of the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget expects all the granting agencies to operate with a core set of concepts for competition, but there are substantial differences between the agencies. “A lot of this is going to be in the topical areas,” Parker noted. “If you are in transportation, they have different wrinkles because of the nature of that topic.”

Parker advises those who want to apply for grants to regularly monitor the federal government’s announcements of grant opportunities at When a grant interests you, make a plan and organize your time accordingly, because some of the application deadlines are staggered, even though most of them will be timed by the federal government’s fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. (State government’s funding years begin July 1.)

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