If you’re reading this then you must be someone who knows about the importance of grants – applying for them and being awarded with them. Unfortunately, not all grant proposals are funded from the first application. It may even take two, three, or more applications to receive funding. 

So the question remains: what steps do you have to take to successfully receive funding for your grant proposal? From a small business with a handful of successful applications under our belt, our best advice is to be persistent

Here’s CareBand’s story of persistence. 

Understanding the Grant Application Process

Before diving in, it is important to explain some technical terms and concepts related to our typical grant application process. When we apply for grants, we tend to vacillate between two specific grant types under the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) wide selection of offerings – SBIR and STTR.

Of the approximately $500 billion in grants awarded by the US government each year, about $25 billion is allocated specifically for SBIRs (Founder Institute). The rest of the award money is given to larger institutions like states, universities, public safety entities, and the like. 

Despite the large award amount allocated per year, the application process is incredibly rigorous with only 3-8% of SBIR proposals receiving funding (Founder Institute). After all, every business believes their project is innovative, important, and worth funding. 

While SBIR and STTR grants are specifically for small businesses, their requirements differ and are important things to consider when applying for one or the other. 

An STTR project requires the small business to be teamed with a non-profit research institution – typically a university. Because of this partnership, STTRs also allow for up to 60% of the research effort to be subcontracted, compared to only 33% for an SBIR. Lastly, an STTR focuses on the transfer of technology from the research institution to the small business and ultimately to the market. 

Choosing between an SBIR and STTR really depends on the nature of the proposed research and the breath of expertise offered by the research team. If you’re looking for advice on how to build a strong research team capable of developing a strong grant proposal, check out our other CareBand blog post on Finding the Right Research Partner: The Beginner’s Guide

Once an application has been successfully submitted, it will undergo critical review and can either be scored and discussed or scored and not discussed or not scored and not discussed. Each application initially undergoes a review process and receives an overall impact score using a 9-point rating scale (1=exceptional; 9=poor). 

After all applications in one submission cycle have been given an impact score, roughly the top 50% of applications will then be discussed between a group of scientific reviewers. In this meeting: 

  • Reviewers state preliminary impact scores
  • Each reviewer describes strengths and weaknesses
  • These concerns are discussed by other members
  • Final scores of assigned reviewers are stated
  • The entire study section votes online by secret ballot
  • Summary statements are compiled by the Scientific Review Officer using 3 written critiques, 2 of which include individual component scores for the 5 submission criteria
  • An overall Impact score is calculated using the mean of all votes x 10

Now that you have a better idea of how NIH grants are reviewed, we can further explain how our grant applications in particular have fanned out over the years. 

Agitation

In April 2018, we applied for an SBIR grant with the intent to explore the CareBand system’s ability to detect agitation – a neuropsychiatric symptom of dementia. 

Neuropsychiatric symptoms (NPS) of dementia, like agitation, apathy, and depression, are psychological and behavioral symptoms that are non-cognitive and are known to arise in 90% of individuals with Alzheimer’s and Dementia related diseases (ADRD). We chose to focus on agitation because it is one of the most common and distressing NPS, with close to a quarter of patients with ADRD developing agitation throughout the course of their illness. 

Existing literature and preliminary studies showed the promise of sensor-based technology (like ours!) to detect agitation in older adults with dementia. We grew inspired and partnered with Indiana University, Regenstreif Institute on Aging, and our site partner – Bethany Village, an American Senior Communities skilled nursing facility located in Indianapolis, IN and several key consultants to submit our SBIR application in April of 2018. 

In this case, we were fortunate to be scored and discussed but did not end up receiving funding. 

Now this is where that persistence comes in. 

As I mentioned before, our proposal was scored and discussed. Since our proposal was discussed, our assigned reviewers provided us with summary statements informing us about the strengths and weaknesses of our application. We were able to use these summary statements to rework our application into exactly what the reviewers wanted to see while not losing focus of our ultimate mission of detecting agitation. 

For example, reviewers raised concerns about what agitation will look like in quantitative data terms. We addressed this concern in our resubmission by specifying what definition and scales we’ll be using as well as referenced a study using similar techniques to measure agitation. Another concern from the reviewers was on the level of expertise our team has in conducting research on this topic. We addressed this concern by expanding the role of one of our team members and expanded the team by adding an experienced data scientist who studies agitation and dementia.

In April 2019, we were able to resubmit our application with appropriate changes according to the reviewer’s suggestions and – success!

In September 2019, we received a notice of award and had the greenlight to begin our study – our persistence had paid off! 

One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned from writing, submitting, and resubmitting grants is the value that reviewers’ comments hold. The reviewers’ are able to provide an outside perspective and expert opinion on the proposed application to pinpoint its strengths and weaknesses. From there, we’re able to address each concern one by one which not only strengthens our application but our knowledge of the writing process for our next submission. 

Lifespace

Armed with the knowledge we gained from our Agitation study, we sought out a new application for CareBand – lifespace. Lifespace refers to the way an individual engages with their living environment. Changes to lifespace patterns can be predictors and signs of physical and cognitive decline in older adults.

For this study, we partnered with the Memory Keepers Medical Discovery Team (MK-MDT) at the University of Minnesota who are experts in rural and Indigenous dementia research. Using CareBand technology, we aimed to monitor rural and Indigenous participants’ location and movement throughout their communities, explore this movement data in relation to lifespace, and promote older adults’ aging in place. 

In September 2019, our team applied for our Lifespace study under an SBIR but unfortunately did not receive funding. Our summary statements noted that this concept of lifespace was not clearly defined and neither were our intentions for validating qualitative data in quantitative terms. In other words, they wanted to see the value of interviews and spatial data in numbers. 

So we went back to the drawing boards, focusing on explaining what lifespace is, how it can be used as a valid measure to indicate cognitive and physical function of older adults in the community, and how CareBand can detect tihs. We also resubmitted under an STTR instead, hoping with a little adjustment of our roles and responsibilities then our application would make more sense to reviewers. 

Unfortunately, it was a similar story, with a similar score, resubmitting under an STTR as an SBIR. 

Yet, we persisted and applied once again in July 2020 but this time under an R21 – an exploratory and development grant. As I mentioned before, proposals are given an impact score and the lower the score, the better. In regards to funding, award agencies will typically have a threshold where, if met, those grants will receive funding. We received a very promising impact score and while we haven’t received official news of award, we’re eagerly expecting the good news any day now!

When applying, it’s not about what we did differently every time – because, frankly, we didn’t drastically change the application each submission. Rather, it was the persistence to keep applying in the face of rejection and the confidence that our proposed research was something worth funding. If we hadn’t received the award from our latest submission, you can bet we would rework our application and try again. 

Our advice is: when your team knows you have a proposal that is really interesting and going to benefit the target population – keep trying and don’t stop until you see that notice of award. 

Engagement

For engagement, our major takeaway was that it’s normal for a project to change as it is developed. You may find yourself in a place very different from where you had initially intended to go – and that’s okay! 

While it may be discouraging to apply and not receive funding, you do get something even more valuable – feedback. The value of the summary statement is that you get to plainly see what your shortcomings are so you know exactly what to improve for resubmission. 

In our first engagement grant proposal, our summary statements explained that our aims were too dependent on one another so if one were to fail, naturally so would the others. This led us to not only redevelop our aims but also rework our study as a whole to be more focused. 

We were able to see our own proposal through the reviewers’ eyes and restructure our study’s goals to better align with STTR criteria – and give us a better shot at being accepted. 

Taking the reviewers’ comments in mind, we are now heading down a different road than where we were initially going but our application is all the better because of it.

You can see how it is normal for a project’s direction to change as it is developed. This was also the case for our SBIR engagement submission in collaboration with a partner company. As we developed the project, we had the idea to combine two different engagement technologies into one efficient and reliable system. 

As we spoke with our partner company, we came up with the idea to submit a proposal based on life enrichment and how to increase it. However, we were a little too ambitious. Naturally, with the help of others and a lot of brainstorming, we were able to focus our application on something more realistic. 

The most important thing we learned from this submission was to align and organize your team as early as possible. Starting the writing process with everyone on the same page, clear on their roles and responsibilities, and working towards the same goal makes for an efficient writing process – we completed ours in just two short months!

With this as our most recent submission, we are eagerly awaiting good news. But in the case of bad news – still, we will persist. 

Conclusion

As you can see, the road to writing a successful grant application is not always the easiest. It may take several attempts before you submit a winning one – and that’s okay. What you learn from each submission is the most valuable part. 

Remember to be adaptable as you write and your proposal naturally develops. Read your reviewer’s comments thoroughly and make the appropriate changes. And above all, be persistent in achieving your goals. 

Now that you’ve seen how rewarding being persistent and patient has been for us, we’d love to hear from you. Drop a comment below to let us know your best advice for writing a successful application! 

Erica Sanchez

Erica Sanchez

Research Manager at CareBand