Tips for Hiring a Grant Writer
This webinar peels back the layers of hiring and managing a grant writer for your project. This is great information for grant seekers of all types including for-profit startups and nonprofits.
In This 1-Hour Session, We Covered:
- How to vet grant writing talent
- Setting expectations and tracking progress
- Tools and resources
- Mistakes to avoid
About the Speakers
Sedale Turbovsky, Co-Founder & CEO, OpenGrants
Sedale Turbovsky is the CEO and co-founder of OpenGrants, a venture-backed startup focused on building modern infrastructure for funding. He has been an entrepreneur since childhood. After honing his leadership skills as an outdoor guide in his younger years, he started his professional career as an independent consultant focused on delivering data products and digital strategies to enterprise clients in South America. He is experienced in independent grant writing and public/private partnerships at the highest level, having worked directly with OpenGrants’ current strategic partner, Momentum.
Austin Link, Co-Founder, Starfish Space
Austin Link is a co-founder at Starfish Space where he’s giving life to on-orbit services. Originally from Iowa, he then went to Stanford for a B.S. in Physics and later Purdue for an M.S. in Aerospace Engineering. In the Aerospace industry, Austin has worked at Lockheed Martin on THAAD and at Blue Origin on a variety of launch vehicles and engines. His particular focus has been on space system architecture, modeling, and operating under uncertainty, all tools that are being applied at Starfish Space. Outside of aerospace, Austin lives in Kent, Washington with his fiancé Jess and their three basset hounds. He also occasionally coaches high school basketball.
Read the Transcription
Please note, this transcription is automatically generated and may contain some spelling and contextual errors.
Super excited to have you all here. I’m the CEO and co-founder and OpenGrants. I’m joined today by Austin Link. Who is co-founder at Starfish Space.
Austin, if you want to go ahead and just introduce yourself, super excited to have you here. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about starfish space and who you are.
Yeah I’m excited to be here. Thank you guys for having me. This is this is one of the challenges for early stage deep tech founders.
That’s it’s good to talk and hopefully we’ve learned a little bit in the process. At least our experience is useful and hopefully I can learn a little bit more today. So just a little overview on myself and then an overview on starfish base for a sense of my background. I’m originally from Iowa, but undergrad physics at Stanford.
Master’s aerospace engineering at Purdue. A couple of years at Lockheed Martin four years at blue origin, which is why I have this obnoxiously bright pink shirt on and a little over two years ago. I, and my co-founder Trevor we set out from blue origin to start starfish face and broadly what we’re doing at starfish.
We’re developing a, what’s called a space tug, which is a small satellite that can grab and move other satellites and objects in space. Useful for a couple of missions. Maybe what’s most notable in the public conscious is this is a way to help remove space debris. You can grab that satellite.
Toss them into the atmosphere. So they decay and they don’t threaten other satellites or astronauts on orbit. We are maybe the nature of being a technology heavy startup. It is although being two years in, we’ve been fortunate to have some success at this point. Examples are, we have a little bit of our software on space ready for some testing.
Hopefully soon we recently raised a seed round up of $7 million and we have a $1.7 million space force contracts that we’ve won going through the small business, innovative research process. We’ve also lost a lot of grants along the way. We have a long way to go ahead and continue to develop our Otter space tug to do these missions.
And so very much a process and a road that we’re on.
Awesome. No, this is super exciting. Austin clearly you have not only some deep professional skills in this space, but you’ve been through, a few different companies and I’m sure gathered a lot of talents along the way. Deep tech in particular and tech in particular, especially for founders who are doing something innovative is often you are the one you’re pioneering a path.
And as you look out there for like ways to communicate that to folks, I’m going to throw out this question and then I’m going to throw it out a poll to the audience, and then we can get into a discussion. But one of the, one of the first questions I want to just get into. How do you hire people to help you communicate this?
Like effectively your grant writers, helping you communicate something that’s entirely new frequently. So how do you go about doing that? So as you think about that I’m gonna throw out this poll to the audience. I’d love to hear. I’d love to hear feedback from folks on the webinar today.
Just first about like how all feeling. So I’m going to go ahead and send out this poll. And then Austin, if you want to folks, if you can just feel free to let us know how you’re feeling in Austin, if you want to get it. What was your process for hiring folks? And did you use the same person across all these grants?
It sounds like you’ve won some, you’ve lost some you’d like, is that the same person who has been helping you?
So we’ve done grants in all different ways here. And to give a little of our background. I did not have a ton of experience writing grants or contracts before starfish.
The ones that I’d written had all lost. My co-founder Trevor did have a lot of experience. He has his PhD from university of Colorado in aerospace, and was funded by NASA and the national science foundation to help develop some of this technology. And we identified really early on in this process.
In particular SBIR small business, innovative research contracts would be valuable for us to generate early traction, to practice working with customers, to build some long-term relationships and to get some non-dilutive funding in the bank account. So those were all good things we recognize it would be important.
We also had people caution us on be careful just chasing too many grants or too many small contracts that can be a distraction from where you want your business to go. So we’ve tried to do them purely just ourselves. At times, we’ve tried to do them with in the state of Washington. At least there was something called the PTAC.
And I don’t remember what PTAC is, but it’s like a state organization to help us work through government funding. And we’ve had them sort of review proposals and go over proposals.
And if I can interject. The PTACs, they are procurement technical assistance centers. So excited. You brought them up. I can get into a bit later, but they actually exist across the United States for the express purpose of helping you access not only grant funding, but government contracts in general. So super stoked that you brought that up.
That was the first introduction to the pipeline that became our space force grant over the summer or contracts. They want to emphasize it’s contract, not a grant. You have to do work for it.
But our first introduction to that opportunity pipeline was through our R P tack here in Washington. We’ve also tried working with a university partners on some of these proposals and they have some contract and help we try working with and then we worked, we went through open grants and had somebody write an NSF grant.
And then we also have a group that consults with us and helps write grants specifically for the DOD. So we’ve done it all different ways here Darien success in all of the different ways. So the ones that we’ve won one that we basically wrote by ourself, but it was on our third attempt to add it.
And then we’ve won a couple with the help of these DOD consultants. And I think we’ve lost everything else.
Awesome. No, it’s a great it’s a great story and I appreciate there’s a couple of things you brought up that I think are highly relevant. And just to give some feedback to, I’m gonna go ahead and share these poll results.
I’m really excited that y’all lots of you are stoked for knowledge. Some of you are a little tired get that a lot of feelings flowing around. But one of the really exciting things right now is that there’s so much granted. And unfortunately that during the holidays is like peak grant season and then coming out of the holidays, there’s even, there’s more grants.
So really excited about that. And a couple of things that, you know, that Austin brought up that I think are really important. One of them is, I don’t know if you did this intentionally or not, but it sounds like you, you found specialists for the different programs out there, right? You didn’t have one person who was everything to you.
You found like a DOD person for the DOD and you found the NSF person for the NSF program. And that’s massively important when you’re looking for that. Grant writer is finding someone who knows the program that you’re focused on and has an understanding of the relationships and everything else.
So really important there I’d love to get into a bit of for the stuff that you manage across that relationship. Did you find that like you needed to spend a lot of time with them? How much time would you think? It was it like really similar across the whole ecosystem?
Did you find that was like, Hey, they’re going to spend 80 hours. We’re going to spend 80 hours. What did that like break down of actual work and engagement look like with each writer.
The breakdown being as your actually executing on the proposal after you’ve decided we’re working together, we’re going to put together a proposal here.
Yeah. So it was one thing. One thing I’ll highlight first is you talked about getting the right grant writer for the right application. One of the big learnings for us in the process was how important that is, that the various. Small contract opportunities that are out there are totally different and they have totally different aims.
And, we came from a very technical sort of academic background to frame our mindset of how we like put this in our initial pitch deck had like equations and citations and stuff, which is a disaster yet. There may be occasional times where you should do that, but for the most part you should not.
And so we wrote our initial proposals in with tech and we put all these figures and all of these math, like we’re putting together a journal paper and there are some groups for whom that’s not that far apart from what they want. And there are some who totally don’t care. And so one of the things that we came to learn over time is like this air force grant that we’ve now had a couple of different flavors of.
Is really designed to try to work with startup companies at an early stage and get a sense of just could their technology be useful. And so the people evaluating it are like they re they go bring in pilots from the air force or mechanics from the air force and say, Hey, take a look through a few of these.
Could this be useful to you? They don’t know any of the math behind our software to dock the satellite with another satellite. They’re not PhDs and guides, navigation control. They just go, could it be useful? Does it help me in what I’m doing? And if so sure, go investigate it. And we’ll see. And that was a tremendous learning process.
And what I think is maybe the most valuable payoff of the people that we’ve worked with in the grant writing is teaching us. Here are the things to focus on. Here’s how this proposal works. And I think one of the trade-offs that. And you talked about the communication process and the split of effort is I naively had in my mind oh, we’re going to find these proposals and then we’re going to hand it off to them.
And they’re going to write this proposal and it’ll look great and send it in. And I have a hard enough time communicating with other aerospace engineers. And sometimes you can find a grant writer, who’s another aerospace engineer, but what are the odds that they’re an aerospace engineer in exactly the area that you’re working with and they understand this process, like if they are doing that, then they’re probably ahead of you in whatever your business is.
And so it was the back and forth and the communication on how do we really nail down some of the details of our idea here and also how do we present this in a way that is interesting to the reader? Takes a lot of effort. I also think it’s really valuable that I had to go translate to Stacy for our NSF grant and Stacy has a doctorate, but she has it in like biology or chemistry or something.
And that is probably more reflective of what the NSF reviewers are then than being directly in our area. And so learning how to translate to her, what we want to say was a great step in learning. How are we going to translate to the reviewers and what we want to say? And we probably had a little less effort that we had to put in the process because we weren’t putting a lot of the words on paper.
But it was still. We still had a lot of hours that we were putting into the, to the proposal writing, even when we weren’t the ones sitting there typing.
Yeah, no, I think this is really great insights and super excited for you to be able to share like your experience with this. Cause it’s something that, we feel very strongly about that, you need to find not only people that you that you can communicate with, but people that know these agencies.
And then, it’s one of the reasons we love grants as a mechanism for early stage for companies that are getting started because it does help you crystallize that information and get really good at communicating it because at the end of the day, what you need to do. And one of the cool things about working with a grant writer is like that process of communicating to them, especially if they’re the right person helps you clarify, because that’s the kind of people, like you said, that’s the kind of people on the other side of that are often reviewing the application.
And depending on the agency you do have some agencies where it’s like very deeply technical PhDs, but they probably are not PhDs in your specific space. And then in, in frankly with, especially on the government side, a lot of times the people reviewing your grant or just, they’re career bureaucrats, they’re their end-users.
There are people who don’t necessarily have a deep technical understanding of things, but they do have a problem usually, and they want to solve it. And they’re excited to read about what you’re doing. No I think that’s really great to hear. I’d love to take a step back and hear from you.
Like what, as you’ve gone out, like you’ve found different resources for these different programs over time. Do you have a system in place now of this is how we’re going to go source grant, what are the approaches you’re using to find these experts and make sure that they align with, the agency program.
So we don’t have a good system for identifying grant writers to a certain degree, the folks that we work with on the DOD grant and contract side, we’ve built up good relationships with them. We’ve had success in working with them. They have a great insight in the areas that really are most relevant.
They’ve even actually invested in us at this point. And so we’ve, we really built a great relationship with them. And when we think about DOD grants, that’s who we work with is them. Now I think the other side of things is we’re starting to, as we grow as a company, No, we don’t want to live on a hundred thousand dollars grants as a company.
We want to take it to the next stages. And as we start taking things to the next stages, I think we’re also starting to bring some aspects of it in house. And so there’s a little bit more, let’s hire a business development person or a couple of business development, people who have experience with these areas.
And it starts to look more like aiming for what does a couple million dollars look like rather than what does the a hundred thousand dollars like, we’re going to learn here, maybe this maybe we still end up going with grant writers. I’ll say that the processes that we followed in the past were so twofold.
So one for the NSF grant, we went through open grants and got paired up with somebody. And we had a. A few conversations with her on, is this a good fit? Does this make sense? And she really had some deep knowledge about the NSF grant process in particular. And we were really excited to work with her.
And then on the DOD side, there was one group that we were talking to that was just public and knowledgeable and involved in some programs that we were a part of with the air force. And so we were thinking about them and I was sharing this with an advisor and the advisor worked with some other tech companies and said, before you go with them, talk to this other group that we work with.
And this other group is the one that we’ve ended up working with here. And it’s not really a good process, right? It’s not really good process to go. Here’s one option. Maybe we should work with them. And. Oh, great. Another option presented itself. And now we get to choose between two. Ideally you understand that the players out there and you get to select who out of four or five folks is going to be is going to be the best to work with.
And I had a really hard time because like, where the heck do I find grant writers? How do I know these people? That was a big chunk. That’s why I, that’s why we went through open grants for the NSF proposal.
Awesome. Yeah. Yeah. And that’s, a big part of, I think that question is one of the ones that we encourage folks to use open grants to answer, because it is it’s, there’s a big space and a lot of these folks, maybe they’re ex contracting officers.
And to be clear I’ll throw a couple of things out there first. I want to, if any of y’all in the audience have questions, please do put them in. Please do pose questions to us as we’re working through this. But one of the things I want to throw out there is that. Are often like end up in like a contract vehicle.
So just to be clear about that, that the funding can still be, non-dilutive and not require repayment. But frequently they end up being basically formalized in a contracting vehicle, especially in kind of the DOD and defense and aerospace arena. So I just wanted to put that out there.
But yeah, I think, it’s a big space. There’s a lot of folks who leave government and they end up they end up working with very comfortable consulting positions, right? Like they have a great network that come out of where, whatever position they’re in, they know, 30 or 40 people in the space, maybe more, maybe hundreds.
And they just like like quietly do go about their business, doing amazing things. And no one knows they exist. And so that’s a lot of the folks that we curate and put into that open grants platforms are excited that we’re able to use that to find a good resource for NSF.
Because you say, I have a question for you today and I’ve given a little bit of the perspective on how to, how did we, as an early stage company, think about how do we work with the grant writer? How do we communicate with the grant writer? When you talk with grant writers, what are the things on their mind about how they communicate with startup companies and overlaid technical founders who want to get into the weeds and don’t have their messaging?
Correct. What are the, what are the big things on their mind as you talk with them?
Yeah, those are great question. I, one of the things that comes up frequently is just that, they these are individuals who have dedicated themselves to the craft of navigating, like very complex, bureaucratic ecosystems, and then pulling money out of those ecosystems.
There’s a lot of rules and organization and just like process. The and I’ve found that one of the things like the top thing is oh, is this person I’m going to be working with going to be organized enough? Apart from being a good fit, which is the top questions like, Hey, are they a good fit for this program?
That as soon as they like have understood that after a discussion of the next question is are they going to be organized enough to send us, send me the information I need and communicate to me? About their technology. Are they going to be responsive and engaged? And so that’s a big that’s the other big kind of hurdle for them.
It’s like first it’s oh, are they a good fit? Ideally they, they want to be involved in a project that’s going to be successful. And these are the kinds of people we curate for. It’s like they want, we want our, the folks within our marketplace to say, no, as often as they, more often than they say yes, frequently, to tell you, Hey, guess what? NSF is just not a good fit for you. You’re not technical enough. You’re not doing something innovative enough, which isn’t a knock on anyone’s technology or company. It’s simply just the fact of how those programs work. And so that’s a great is it a great question?
And those are the two top things like, Hey, are they a good fit? Will this company be successful in applying for grant funding? Are they going to be competitive? And then the second one is, Hey are they going to be like organized and responsive enough to actually get stuff done on time and, helped me navigate their company.
That makes a lot of sense that they have to worry about. Are these startup jokers actually going to get me what I need to do this well? Yeah. It’s funny to talk about that. One of the stories that, that really relayed the importance of fit to us. So we were talking with DARPA for a while and we operate in the world of satellite servicing.
DARPA operates in the world of satellite servicing. We thought it could be a pretty good fit to work with them and work with them on some small proposals. And we were going back and forth with DARPA and we iterated on this white paper that we were writing about taking to the next steps. And finally, after doing this for a couple of months, They came back to us and said his final conclusion.
They said, I think I understand what you’re doing. I think it makes a lot of sense. I think it’s a good thing to be funded. They go, to be honest, we think it’s a little too likely to work, to be funded by DARPA. I said, it’s just not a DARPA problem because we think you’re probably going to succeed. So go get money from somebody else.
Yeah. And it was a weird shock and like what I was too likely to succeed. So you didn’t give me money. But it was just an emphasis of, you just have to find the right fit for your company at that stage.
Yeah. And that goes for, a lot of the grant consultants and writers, they often will have those insights for you ahead of time as well.
To your point, there’s some programs that seem like a great fit, but they’ll get down to the, down in the weeds. They’re like, oh, it was too likely to be successful or this is technology that just isn’t exactly what we’re looking for. There’s a lot of things to navigate. I’d love to hear from the audience where you all are in your journey.
So I’m going to go ahead and throw another poll out there. We’d love to hear y’all’s feedback about where you are in your funding process. Because some of the things that, the big takeaways that we want to get that I wanted to get across for everyone today is one, like, how do you find that Goodlatte, that consultant one of the things, one of the questions you should be asking, and then the other aspect of it is how to work with these folks.
And so from a high level, finding that good consultant, we’ve heard from Austin, there’s talking to your advisors and that’s actually one of the first things I say about finding grant funding as well. You have some great like advisors, either on your board or within an advisory board.
And they’ve been in the space for awhile. They probably know where a lot of these things are. Especially if you’re in deep tech and hard tech and they can give you some really great insights as to who to reach out to and who to talk to. So definitely, using your own network is always great.
And we have that same philosophy at open grants in terms of hiring folks. See, you want to you want to hire folks that people in your network know that you can get those kinds of references and warm interests. So it’s always awesome. If you can get that there’s places to find these grant writers, open grants, we built specifically to try to organize this ecosystem.
And we’ve had, some, Austin and others have used this to find those people that are. They know that they’re looking for NSF, so you can go and search and find like an NSF focused person. And if you like search for aerospace, you could find an aerospace focused person. So that’s another great tool.
I’d love to get into, like on the back half of this discussion would love to get into a bit more of, how, manage the project, work with the work with that writer, like what things you put in place to actually get them, the things they need. Yeah, w we’d love to hear your thoughts.
It sounds like a lot of you are just exploring opportunities. I’m going to go ahead and end this poll and I’ll share the results here. Like a lot of folks on the line are exploring opportunities. Right now they’ve found an opportunity and they’re actively looking for a grant writer. They’re pursuing a government contractor, a grant.
So yeah let’s talk about this. What, in terms of like time tracking, project management all that stuff, did you just shove this into your existing kind of project management process? Or did you build something specific for it? How did y’all approach actually doing the work?
So when we set out and said, okay, here’s the opportunity we want to pursue? Here’s we want to pursue it with I think the first thing we had to do is just, so the first thing was to first things. How about that first and second thing one, we have to get a handle on what is the application process and what all is involved.
Because a lot of times, when you think about the grant writing, you go great. We have a 15 page white paper that we have to put in here. And a 15 page white paper is this sort of thing that you want to start a few weeks before you need to turn into. And at the end of the day, if you start it like a few days before you turn it in and you can have a 15 page white paper that you send it, which is not how you want to operate, but you can.
But there are things that you can’t do like that. There are some registrations that just take time and you have to go through sam.gov and get registered and answer all the questions on whether or not you’re doing business in South Sudan. And it just takes time and there’s processing on their end of two to six weeks or whatever there’s letters of support.
And when you’re asking people for letters of support, you don’t want to be leaning on them. Hey, I need a letter of support and I need it in two days. So help me out. Pretty pleased. And this is something we had to learn was. In the grant writing process, we want to sit down at the beginning and scope out.
And this is where the grant writer is super useful. What are all of the things that we actually need as part of this proposal? What are the things that we need to come together and do to submit an effective proposal and let’s start on a long lead items early in the process. The other thing that we would do early on is we need to get the grant writer familiar with our technology and what we’re doing.
And we would just spam them with materials and say, here’s a couple of old proposals that we’ve written that are adjacent, and here’s a one page or here’s a pitch deck. And all of this, it is just, here’s our technology. Here’s how we talk about it. Here’s how we use it. I don’t know whether or not that’s the best approach, but that’s what we did.
And then we would lay out. In a way that we often do. We set up weekly meetings with the grant writer said every week, Friday at 9:00 AM, let’s sit and have a call and talk about what’s the current status? What are we working on? And then we would have goals for where roughly do we want to be each week.
And actually our grant writer in, in the NSF proposal had those previously defined because she’d done several of these proposals. And so she said, here is my here’s my process. And if we want to do it in four weeks, this is how we do it. And if we want to do it in eight weeks, this is how we do it.
And pretty pleased can we do eight weeks instead of four weeks? Cause that’s nicer. And so she had that and we had just a couple of tweaks to it. And then we would go through a whole process of what are we actually proposing? Let’s just talk about it. Let’s just have a lot of conversations. So that.
She hears how we talked about it and she hears how we highlight messages and we can answer questions on her mind and then we would put together an outline and just here’s how the outline works. And here’s the floated proposal. And here’s the very specific sections that they have and the questions that they want answered, because I’ve learned that’s key when they say have these sections, then you literally have those sections in big, bold headers, because that’s what people are looking for.
And then we would go, okay, here’s a rough draft and here’s a final draft. And I think at the steps where we were most involved in the process, number one in that outlining phase, That is more important than we initially appreciated because that’s a chance to catch a lot of things on just how are you presenting the technology?
How are you highlighting the key points of the technology? Because you really want that unified message coming through in your proposal that you put together. And that outline is where you determine what is that unifying message and how are we just emphasizing that message at each point? And then the other thing is we were heavily involved in the final draft because there are just some things that you’re not going to effectively communicate the detailed nuance wording.
And you might even look through the proposal and be like this is wrong and this is wrong and this is wrong. And this isn’t quite right. And at the end of the day, it’s best for you to just. Change them because the sentiment of the sentences, and you just need to change the wording so that it is correct.
So if you happen to find that reviewer that knows that area, technically then you’ve stated it correctly, as opposed to them going, oh, they don’t really know exactly what they’re talking about. Cause they don’t know the lingo. Those were the areas where we were really heavily involved in the NSF proposal in a couple of the DOD proposals where we’ve done.
We have had people draft up, do the entire rough draft themselves. And then we just iterate with them on that and that entire rough draft, you have to keep a fairly close perspective on in the past. People have here’s previous proposals. We’ve done. Here are the various sort of paragraphs and wordings and tweakings and some connection language that they adapt around it.
Sometimes you’ll look at it and go that paragraph doesn’t make sense in this proposal for this. And that’s okay. That’s part of the iterated on the rough draft. And I find it so much easier to do, to try to put together a good proposal. When you have 12 pages out of a 15 page already written, and you’re trying to update it and change it and clarify the messaging and not when you’re sitting and staring at a blank screen in front of you going, let me just write 15 pages here.
Other times we have done, boy, this is a really important proposal. We really need to nail down the messaging here. We are going to write the rough draft ourselves or write at least certain sections of the rough draft ourselves and let the grant writer who in this case is more of a grant consultant.
If they’re not really doing the bulk of the writing, do a let’s go clarify what the messages are so that it works with the end customer. Here, and you do start to ask yourself in that process wait a second. I wrote the whole proposal. Why are we paying either right upfront or a portion of the outcome to the grant writer?
They can still really help in the consultant and be increasing your odds of winning the award. And then it’s just like a probabilistic math equation on, is this a positive return on value or not? And then I do think there are ways to effectively have them write a lot of the proposal and you’re just key to the outlining process and then key to the review process.
Yeah. No, and I think a couple of things I want to pull out from some of the stuff you said I think one of them is, as you are working with this grant writers being sure. They should, most of the time they should come in with some templates or like if they show up and they’re like, I don’t have anything for you, what do you want to do?
That’s not a good sign. And I think to your point, like while you’re delivering the substantive this is our tech, they should, at the very minimum be coming in with, Hey, this is all the stuff you need. And it’s one of the places that they provide so much value. And it’s one of the reasons that, hiring a grant writer really can help you optimize your outcomes is because they can help you understand do you need a Sam registration?
Do you need like this? What format should my data management plan be in? What kind of disclosures should I be making to the military about IP? Like, how should I be protecting some of that? There’s a lot of things to consider. And the proposal is just this very, this is it’s like the white paper, like you said a lot of technical founders could bang out a white paper on their.
And it could be 15 pages and they begin to go. But it’s all the other, like it’s all the other stuff. So I’m excited to hear that you experienced that and were able to rely. It sounds like in part on the templates and timelines and like process design from a grant writer or grant consultant.
That is where we’ve tried to take an, even for a, you, we had a relatively large proposal that we submitted earlier this week and it was, we wrote a 15 page white paper and my co-founder Trevor wrote the 15 page white paper.
And that was. He wrote the 15 page white paper handed it off. They had our resumes and letters of support and all of these crazy documents that, where do I get a company commercialization report? I have to do a whole form to say that they’re not working with Chinese radio communication companies. And it’s a checklist of 15 items.
And I remember doing this originally and trying to track all of these 15 items for this $50,000. Grant that we were going after. It’s oh my gosh, I’m overwhelmed and frustrated. I don’t really know how to navigate the portal. I don’t know who to talk to, to get help.
Let’s talk about that real quick.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I feel like that’s another sort of real value proposition that I think can’t be understated. And I don’t know if you’ve I’m sure you’ve used fast or fast lane. I’m sure you’ve used the DOD submission portal and beta Sam, but for all of you who haven’t had the opportunity and pleasure to work with these outstanding products from the federal government of the United States it’s it’s a problem.
It’s a real issue. Knowing how to navigate those things. I’d love to hear what your experience like, what your thoughts are on that for founders. But frequently I’ve said, if else. I will have my consultant use this portal because I don’t want, I don’t want to deal with it.
Yup. That’s what we always do. Now. Somebody else used the pro the reviews, the portal, and upload it and submit it. And it’s just, oh my gosh. We have had times some of the stories is here. We’ve had times where our first, our very first proposal, we submitted an NSF proposal and we’re were really excited about it.
And we put a whole bunch of effort into it because your first one is your company, but way too much effort into it. And we didn’t have a grant writer for it. And we sent it in and two weeks later or something, they call us at 4:00 PM Eastern time on a Friday and say, Hey, you guys don’t have this document in your report.
You need to get it in the next week or else you’re not eligible. And call us back to figure out what you need. And we go in and we look at our report and we’re like, it’s there. We see it. It’s it’s right there. We send it in. And then we call them back. It’s 5:02 PM on a Friday. So they’re gone.
And their voice message says, Hey, I’m gone also. I’m out of the office next week. You can talk to me a week later. You just told us we needed to get this to you in a week. And we think it’s already in there. And we just searched randomly for emails associated with it and fired off all these emails and called all these help desks and called RP tack.
And like finally, we found somebody who just told us chill out. I guarantee that we will not like I will promise. And I’m the leader of the program that you won’t be disqualified for this we’ll have him check when he’s back. If he sees it in the system and then he’s oh yeah, no, I do see the system.
And it was just, we had nowhere to go. We had total chaos. And you contrast that with you working with the grant writer over the weekend, we hit submit on the proposal. We took another look through the documents and we found one of them has the header still says in search proposal number here. And we go, oh, we gotta go update that and tweak it.
And we tell the person that we’re working with and he comes back to us. I see these like automated emails, splashed through my inbox. Like you have requested to unsubmit the proposal we have unlocked it. You have resubmitted your proposal. And he texts us like an hour later, okay. Fixed, submitted.
And it was just, I didn’t know what the hell, I don’t know what the help desk that he went through was, but it was the right one and yeah.
Yup. Yeah, no. And I think, it’s always. It’s always so funny. Like obviously the system should be a lot better and that’s like the long-term mission of open grants is to improve it and make it much more functional.
But I think one of the things that you’ve alluded to, and I want to get across is that one of the values like significant values of working with the folks who’ve navigated the system for a long time is simply the navigation. Like you’re showing up with the best tech and like cool ideas and really great.
And the tragedy of the bureaucracy here is that for folks who don’t know how to unlock those steps, don’t know the right like process to navigate that help desk or portal or just frequently. The amount of times that the DOD has emailed us and been like, our portal is down.
And then it’ll be down for a week and then they’ll bring it back. But yeah, it’s a process for sure. And it’s really great, it’s the same reason you, I always tell people it’s the same reason you hire an attorney.
It’s yeah, you can follow the directions, just like everyone else. But it’s the it’s the extra navigation, like how these things are interpreted and navigated that really brings that value out. And that’s what frequently you want to also rely on those consultants for granted.
So one one final story to highlight here is the little of the horror story on how long can this go in the process? So we have a technology that we’re working with a us university to help develop. How does one satellite attached to another satellite? And they’d done some previous research and we wanted to fold it into what we’re doing.
And so we were exploring STTR small business technology transfers and it was a great way to go about this. And so we submitted an S an STTR. We’d submitted it once we hadn’t won, we made some revisions, we got some consulting help on it. We submitted the second time we came back with the notification.
All right, it’s selected and funded. Like you guys are go send an email to the professor that we’re going to work with. Hey, we got it. We’re going to get to do this contract together. Put it in our pitch deck. Cause we were like leading into fundraising. I pitched with the deck saying that we won this
two weeks later, go wait, I haven’t heard back from some of these questions on the contract. Hey, do you guys need anything from me? What does it take to move this forward? We had to ask a couple of times, and then we got a form letter back saying you’ve been declared ineligible for this grant.
And they did some funny math and in the STTR 30% has to go to the research institution and it’s a $50,000 grant. And we have the letter saying we’re paying $15,000 to the research Institute, 30%. And we actually messed up our budgeting process and it was going to be like 16 and a half thousand. And they did some weird math and they came up with, you’re only paying 27% of this to the research institution because I like interpreted our budget different than we’d intended.
And normally they might call you and talk through it. But we heard through back channels through our consultants that they ran out of time to do this. And so there was a whole stack that they were just going to get back to and solve these questions out. And instead they just declared the entire stack ineligible because that was the easy way for them to get finished up the process.
And so we lost it and I had to go back to somebody that we were going through, like due diligence with and say, Hey, remember how I said and pitched that we won this grant we didn’t avoid. And it sucks and that’s where a good that’s one of the examples that I think of how a good grant writer can help.
Navigate the process and ensure that you know exactly how do I put it in the budget. And also I’ll emphasize a good grant writer are, this was our grant writer helped us make the budget on this one, and they’d done this successfully in the past this way. And it just didn’t quite work this time for whatever reason.
And and other things they’ve done have been great, so we’ve continued to work with them, but that moment sucked. And that was a little, that’s the fear that I always have when sending in all these 15 different documents am I going to mess up a detail and am I going to make a $50,000 mistake?
Yeah. Yup. Yeah no. I think, that’s similar I had a similar experience. We, in my first startup we applied for and were awarded, but not. A half a million dollars by a state agency for our startup. And so awarded worded means they were like, yes, you passed all the things, but you don’t meet the criteria to actually receive the money because your budget looks X, Y, and Z ways.
And it doesn’t like fit like our process. And our grant consultant actually was able to it was like a three or four month process, but they pulled in like the public advisor, which is legal liaison with the agency and went down this whole process. And ultimately they got the state agency to reverse their decision.
And release the money and release the grant because it was literally, they’re just like, yeah, we just want to keep this money in our budget and we don’t want to give it to you. And so those are the kinds of things where you need you need these experts to come on board and really support what you’re doing.
And it really can unlock all kinds of things that fully like to if you have a bad outcome, you can figure out how to navigate and learn from it. Or, sometimes you can even reverse these kinds of bad outcomes. I would, before we jump into Q and a questions, I’m going to go ahead and launch another poll here.
We’d love to get, folks thoughts on what’s your biggest challenges right now. Feel free to pepper in some more questions. And as this poll gets answered, we’ll bring up the questions themselves and we can really dive in. The other thing I want to just throw out there for you if you have some thoughts on it, Do you have any any sort of like red flags that you’ve learned to look for as you’re trying to bring in talent to help you support this process?
Like any big things that other founders should be looking out for?
I think one of the things that is always super important as a, as well as an all companies, but most evident in early stage companies is that everything you do needs to feed into the overall objective function, which is that for our case, it’s that our company goes out and changes the way that humans interact with the universe around us and builds a great environment to work in and live joyfully as part of it.
And it can be easy and we have not had grant writers push us in this sense, but it can be easy to get distracted and go, Ooh, I need some money. Here’s something that is money that I could win, but it might not be what’s the right thing for your business really to do. And as we’ve talked with other founders, we’re a space company and you would think that NASA is like the first agency that we should go to, to work, to try to get some of this early funding.
And they were, and they and we really still would like to work with NASA. And then I thought there’s some like potential military applications of our technology, but it’s not a major driver. And so air force, and now the space force probably secondary to NASA and importance for us. And we went out and we talked with other founders and they said, you get a NASA grant.
And it just funds the two of you to do a little bit of technology. That’s not going anywhere besides NASA and it’s not a springboard to anything more. And then they said, we started off with a $50,000 contracts with the air force and. Two months ago, we won a $20 million contract with them and that’s because they are really determined to take these startups and turn it into actually useful technology that really helps the war fighter, as you say in the world.
And last NASA cycle, we didn’t work with, we didn’t send in any proposals to NASA, but said, it’s going to take a lot of our time and it’s not really going to be a good outcome for the company. So I think that’s a red flag to be just careful about in the process is you want to make sure that what you’re doing is really a good thing for the company.
And you have to hold yourself to this too because you might be able to survive on these little grants for awhile. But honestly, if you’re just barely surviving on these little grants, it might be better to close up the shop and go do something else.
Yeah, definitely. Don’t chase the shiny things. Focus, focus is key. It can thank Adam Draper for that. But I, I do want to checking out some of the responses of the poll and then we’ll get into the questions. It looks like cost is, one of the big challenges out there as people look for grant support.
I want to bring up and highlight something that Austin brought up already, which is our, the P tax. So there’s these procurement technical assistance centers across the United States that are funded by both the SBA, which is the small business administration and the DLA, which is the defense logistics agency.
And they are specifically specked out in Austin. I’d love to hear, maybe we can start real quick with. What happened working with the PTAC and how did that go? Because the P techs they’re available through typically your SBDC is they exist as a quasi sort of Oregon X. The SBDC is which are the small business development centers across the United States.
They are funded by the government. They are a hundred percent free. And they’re experts who can help you with exactly this. So that’s a first, it’s a great first resource to look at. And frankly I’ll tell you that my, my first company that I alluded to earlier we were grant funded and we use the SBDC and the P tax, not only to get grant funding, but also government contracts.
And they were a great source of help as we were bootstrapping that company into existence. Do you want to give a quick rundown on just how the process was for like signing up and getting involved with the PTAC.
Yeah the quick overview for us, we got connected to the PTAC by this, somebody in the industry, in the state who said, Hey, go and talk with them.
And they were a great early and as you highlight free resource their goal is to help us. And there’s somebody that you should be introduced to because every once in a while, Kate will just send us these, Hey, here’s a little SVIR are that you should pay attention to, or here’s an opportunity coming up that you should pay attention to.
And we did early on, she reviewed a couple of the white papers that we put together. She tried to answer a couple of questions on how long will it likely be before you hear back and. What like do you have to have some fancy cost accounting software to, to execute on the budget? Or is it more of a firm fixed price?
And they were great to help answer some of those early questions. They always answered with a little bit less certainty because they were not as familiar with specific individual grant opportunities. They were not as familiar with the technology and the areas, even as familiar as the grant writers that we ended up working with were.
And so I don’t view the P tech as a substitute for a grant writer if you want to work with them. But somebody worth having a conversation with early in the process to just give you a great scope of the community was how it played out for us.
Awesome. Yeah. No, thank you so much. I just want to highlight this, cause there was also a question about like, how do we make this process cost list and costs was this big question. So P tax or one source procurement technical assistance centers the SBDC or the small business development centers. And they can also provide you with like specific consultants.
I would agree with Austin to some extent that they’re not necessarily a substitute, although in some cases there are actual specify specific programs funded by the government. And these are called bast centers across the United States that help with especially technical like R and D grant funding.
And it’s a great resource. And I always I always think, I think a lot of us who’ve, if you’ve worked a lot with government or even a little bit, sometimes you’re really surprised when it like functions really well. But I frequently say that like the SBA and the SBDC is, are some of my favorite organizations and like government entities across the United States.
And for those of you who might be also having companies that are looking to get contracts in the United States and maybe your form. This is also the, it’s the jumping off point. Like it’s a really great spot to get started for sure. And it’s a place that you can go get guidance on business in general.
And I want to throw that out there just as a resource. I always try to plug these folks because they’re incredible. And they’re free, they’re paid for by tax dollars. And they’re incentivized on your success, right? So their incentives and metrics for them to receive more money and continue to do well, or that you raise money, that you get contracts, that you hire more people that you grow your business in revenue.
So there’s a good, there’s really good alignment. They’re a great partner. So I want to throw that out there as one of these first questions let’s go into I see a few of like questions about what can we expect in terms of the. I have a grant writer. And is it based on funding levels of the grants or how complicated the grant mechanism is?
I’ll take a first swing and just say that it really does vary quite a bit on the complexity of the grant. And the amount of work that needs to be done. A lot of grant writers will charge hourly and frequently, depending on how technical they are. Like if you’re getting someone really brilliant, like Austin, they’re going to charge more because they’re worth more.
And if on the other end, if you’re doing something, that’s maybe a lot of strategic work, but it’s not deeply technical, so you don’t need like a PhD. That might be someone else, but Austin, I’d love to hear to the extent that you can share numbers or sort of general budget items, love to hear, what kind of costs that you incurred.
So generally what we’ve seen is about five to 10% of the proposal outcome. And if it is structured, there are ways to structure. That you only pay out if you are awarded the proposal. Those ways, they’re taking on some of the risks. And so the expected value of what you’re going to have to pay becomes higher.
And you start talking about paying 20 or 30% of the proposal if you win it to them. But that can be a great way to start. And then, there are ways to do just a flat fee and some of the folks that we’ve worked with as consultants, there’s a retainer fee and then a portion of winning proposals also.
It’s definitely, it’s one of those things that if you told me early on in the process Hey, here’s this $250,000 NSF proposal, and you’re going to be paying $10,000 to somebody to write this proposal to. And you’re sitting there in the public library. Like I don’t have any money. Why am I’m not paying anybody $10,000?
And I get that. That’s an overwhelming thing. When you zoom out later and you think about Hey, we got significantly better odds of this proposal and significantly better odds of being able to go raise funding. Like the idea that we spent 20 to $30,000 on grant writers that won us, not just like $1.8 million in proposals, but also these proposals that led into Hey, we raised $7 million of venture capital.
That was 20 to $30,000 pretty well spent to make that happen. So there’s a there’s a whole host and there’s a little bit of the classic conundrum of sometimes what you really want to do is build a business coming out of it. Sometimes you have to spend money to make.
Awesome. Great answer. And I just want to follow on cause there’s a few other questions in terms of the cost and I know we’re drawing close to time, so I’ll go quick on this one. In terms of budgeting typically grants specify that you can only use the money for the period of the grant performance.
So if you were trying to pay a grant writer, poet, from your. It’s technically illegal and wouldn’t be allowed. So that’s the quick answer. Some of the things that Austin alluded to are available, sometimes there’s actual sort of legal hurdles to jump, and sometimes it’s not allowed as well.
So you want to work with that consultant to understand that, but typically the cost of hiring the grant writer is not something that you can put in your proposal budget. However, you can hire them to do post award support for you. And that can be in your proposal budget, where they can help you do all the reporting and paperwork, which can be massively helpful.
And they can continue to send updates to those portals and things. Really great really great questions. I’m gonna, I’m going to answer this other one real quick. So there’s a question here about just finding finding writers for government. We do a lot of that at open grants in particular.
Feel free to sign up on the platform and happy to point you in the right direction on. And then Austin, I’m going to throw the last one to you because I’d love your thoughts and then it’s noon. So we’ll let folks go. But Austin, if you have a couple minutes to answer this one, let me know.
Otherwise we have a hard stop. Happy to let you go. But there’s last question here. What grants are worth applying for more than once versus not worth the time if you’ve already been denied, for example, NSF says your tech isn’t novel enough. Should you apply again?
I, we have had success applying multiple times with grants, even on the same sort of thing.
Now, part of the challenge is you have to judge a little bit. How close was it? And that’s a hard thing to judge this, the guidance and control software that has become the $1.7 million contract that we won this summer. I originally submitted in February of 2022 and we were rejected. And then I submitted in like September of 20, 22 or sorry, of 2020, and we were rejected.
And then I submitted in December and we were told that we were rejected. And then they came back and said, oh, actually, no, you weren’t rejected this time. And a little bit of that was us learning how to present things better. A little bit of that was us developing the technology and developing the company so that we had more to show as part of the process.
And for some of these air force grants, they want to see. That you are, you have a likely path as a company, so that you’re not just going to be trying to live off of small air force grants. And that was enough to really turn the tide. And so if you think you can make progress forward in the ways that you fell short in the first times applying again with things I view to be really fairly common, as long as it’s really actually the right opportunity for you.
Awesome. All right. Thank you so much, Austin, for sharing your insights really appreciate you joining today and sharing your journey through grants and, I’m really stoked to see starfish space just blazing ahead. So really excited to, to continue to follow y’all. And thank you all, everyone for attending and sticking around.
I appreciate you all for spending time with us today.