Be sure to talk with your topic authors
by Bob Fielder
For most agencies, technical points of contact (TPOCs) are available to answer questions and provide clarification. Be sure to check your specific solicitation for guidelines regarding when the TPOCs may be reached, and what kind of information may be shared. Talking with the TPOC is the first critical step to vetting the topic and ensuring that you have a compelling technology. Generally, we suggest abandoning an SBIR topic if you are unable to talk to the TPOC listed for it.
Here are some basic questions that we like to cover in this discussion:
What are the primary programs to which this topic is targeted?
By identifying one or more programs which support your topic, you can then do some homework and align your development program with their long-range technology roadmaps. These related programs may also provide candidates to approach during your Phase II project to pursue Phase III funding. Principals within these programs may also be able to provide additional specific requirements that can be targeted with your Phase I work plan.
Which prime contractors are most heavily involved in these programs?
This relates to identifying system integration requirements. Most often, small businesses are developing component, or sub-system technologies which must then be integrated into a larger platform. Identifying the prime contractors and system integrators will enable you to find more specific requirements and to recruit targeted team members. The primes will also have a clear idea of the application requirements and technical challenges, and may be able to provide subject matter expertise.
Can you provide more information on the applications operational environment?
Understanding the full operational envelop is critical to determining if your solution is a potential fit. This will also help you avoid the most common type of Phase I debrief comment we have seen: "Failed to consider the complexities of the application." How will the technology be used in the end application? What environmental factors will affect the performance of your solution? Are there stringent SWAP-C or safety requirements?
What has been the most difficult or most important technical requirement to meet?
Most topics will have a list of requirements, but not all of them are equally weighted. You'll want to know which is the most important so that you can focus your work, and technical justification, accordingly. Since Phase Is are largely proof of feasibility projects, you may not have an abundance of experimental data to support your proposed approach. Therefore, it is imperative to focus your technical arguments on the most critical aspects of the topic.
Get clarification on the Phase I deliverable – what do they really expect to see?
Phase I deliverables will also have a range of requirements listed, and you'll want to know which are the most important to enable targeted work. Does the TPOC want to see an analytical model, or do they want to see hardware? Will they want to test your prototype in their lab? If so, what are the likely test conditions going to be?
We cannot overstate the importance of talking with the technical point of contact. This initial vetting of the topic will take less than 30 minutes, and could save you many hours of time invested in pursuing a proposal that was off-target and destined to be rejected.