It’s important to keep in mind that winning a grant doesn’t mean you’ve won a lottery. It means you’ve convinced the grantors that you’re going to create the most impact with the money they’re giving out. Grantors have a duty to give their money away, as well as a duty to make sure that the money is going to be effective.
One way of increasing the potential efficacy of those funds, and therefore your chances of winning the grant, is to bring in a partner who can help guarantee you’ll have an impact.
Traditionally, the most effective way to find potential partners has been through conferences. Networking happens during the conference, followed by targeted followup afterwards. This is still an effective tactic during the pandemic, and is actually easier and more affordable than before because there’s no need for travel and lodging, entrance fees are often lower, and networking is facilitated by virtual tools.
When selecting conferences to attend, you should carefully evaluate them based on their topic and past attendance lists if you can find them. Set goals for what you want to achieve, develop your collateral and pitch materials, and go into the experience with purpose. If possible, participate in one-on-one networking. After the conference, use a CRM tool like HubSpot to record your new connections and keep track of how they respond to your communications. Be sure to add them on LinkedIn, and send a follow-up email to anyone you made commitments to.
Potential Partners for Grant Funding
Now we’ll look at some common partners that grant applicants should consider.
1. Defense Prime Contractors
This is an ideal route if you’re exploring a grant that’s funded by the Department of Defense. The five largest defense prime contractors are Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, The Boeing Company, and General Dynamics.
Why would a large defense prime contractor have any interest in a small business?
Small Business Act – 15 USC 637 requires that organizations of a certain size and type develop and implement a subcontracting plan. They have departments that are small and have dedicated personnel that understand the SBIR/STTR programs and actively engage with small business in various ways.
How to begin a relationship with a large prime subcontractor:
Ask a representative from that organization to provide you with a letter of support to include with your DoD Phase I proposal. Most prefer to engage with small business during Phase I so they can provide input to the development process if the business is developing a component that will ultimately go into a system for which they are the lead system integration. Participate in an event hosted by the Component that the large prime contractors also attend. An example of this would be Small Business Industry Days (SBIDs) hosted by the Air Force SBIR program office.
2. Federal Laboratories
Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) are operated or managed by a contractor, rather than by the federal government.
How to begin a relationship with a FFRDC:
Ask your peers if any of them have had experience working with an FFRDC. If yes, ask for the name(s) of the specific researcher with whom they worked. If no, contact the Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) and ask for help identifying an FFRDC that might be a good subcontractor on your project.
Important things to consider when contacting a FFRDC:
- The work they agree to do for you on an SBIR/STTR project may be given secondary priority to their primary mission and responsibilities.
- The amount of SBIR/STTR funding that you can subcontract to an FFRDC is not going to be a significant incentive to the laboratory.
- There may be other reasons that an FFRDC may want to work with you on an SBIR/STTR project. It may give the laboratory an opportunity to work with another agency or program in the federal government to which they otherwise would not have access.
- It will be easier to work with an FFRDC if it has previously served as a research institution or subcontractor on an SBIR or STTR proposal.
Reasons to partner with a University:
- Access to pre-existing top-tier research and intellectual property
- Access to the considerable resources of a research university
- Potential to building a more well-rounded team for your company
- Cultivate a long-term relationship around joint R&D and employable talent
- Enhance face validity with decision makers
Ways that small businesses commonly team with universities:
- Directly hire university personnel
- Experimentation, T&E and prototyping
- Joint R&D and leveraging costs and investments
Highly-qualified faculty and students often seek temporary or regular employment at small businesses. A faculty member or a recent graduate may bring new strength to the organization and round out the team. Having an academic institution as a long-term partner also mitigates some of the R&D risks.
These are just some initial insights into why and how to partner with an incumbent organization to increase your impact, strengthen your business, and improve your chances of winning a grant—particularly an SBIR/STTR grant. Keep your mind open and start developing these relationships early. Even if they don’t partner on a specific grant, the legwork of developing these connections can yield major opportunities for your business in the future.