9 ways to help startups write a winning grant application

Winning Grant Application: team collaborating at a desk

We updated this article to include new tips to writing a successful grant application. The article was originally published in August 2019.

Grant support is critical to help early-stage science and tech innovators achieve early proof of concept for their ideas. However, the number of startups applying for grants continues to grow each year. If you’re planning to apply for a grant, there are several ways to ensure that your application stands out from the competition.

Our team of program officers at VentureWell takes a hands-on approach to helping early-stage innovators develop their grant applications. Through a rigorous review process, a diverse panel of experts—from professionals with an expansive technical background to seasoned entrepreneurs and business leaders—carefully look over each application before providing detailed feedback and guidance.

Here are nine things to keep in mind when writing a winning grant application:

Follow the application guidelines

This may seem like common sense, but a surprising number of promising teams don’t receive grant funding because they didn’t carefully follow the guidelines. Funders put in a great deal of effort to ensure those guidelines articulate exactly what’s required in the application. In a way, they’re providing you with a formula for success. Make sure to carefully read all the information provided and note each completed requirement. If you’re unsure, check the Frequently Asked Questions or reach out to the funder directly for clarification. Generally, they’re more than happy to answer a thoughtful question about the application if it will help increase the applicant’s chances for funding.

Another reason to follow application guidelines: Reviewers notice teams that pay attention to detail—and those that don’t. It’s a critical skill in business and entrepreneurship, and wise to illustrate that skill to potential funders and mentors during your initial interaction.

Seek fit and alignment

Another important point to make about grant applications is knowing when not to apply for a grant. Not every grant opportunity will align with your scope, focus, and goals. Grant funders are looking for a specific impact story to result from their funding, because they are not seeking a financial return. Avoid reconstructing your story or mission to meet the criteria of a specific grant. Find the opportunities that are a good fit for you.

If you’re part of an early-stage startup in need of grant support, it’s crucial to develop the right skills to successfully navigate the grant application process. From carefully adhering to application guidelines to clearly articulating your technology, business plan, and potential impact, you have the potential to generate much needed funding to help turn your idea into a venture.

Write for a lay audience 

Make sure you’re able to describe your technology in a straightforward way. Avoid unnecessary technical and business jargon. If a reviewer doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say in two passes, they likely won’t try to decipher it a third time. Review panels are made up of experts with diverse backgrounds—and not all reviewers will fully understand the technical nuances of your innovation.

An inability to clearly explain your technology also raises another question among reviewers: Does this team know what they’re doing? Clear and concise descriptions of your technology will illustrate that you understand your project so well that you’re able to explain it to anyone on the fly—and they comprehend your vision.

This skill will also prove useful during pitch competitions and investor meetings.

Leave no question unanswered

Reviewers often won’t accept your application if your narrative raises more questions than it answers. Illustrate that you understand:

  • The problem that you’re solving;
  • The customer you’re solving the problem for; and
  • How that problem is currently solved.

It also helps to show evidence that your solution works and will solve the problem as you describe. Rejected proposals generally don’t provide enough technical description to ensure the reviewers understand the company’s vision.

Prove your potential impact

For most reviewers, an interesting idea isn’t enough. They’re looking for teams that:

  • Have an innovation that has the potential to solve a real social, environmental, or health challenge—preferably on a global scale;
  • Have the potential to scale as a business, ensuring they are able to solve big problems through innovation and entrepreneurship; and
  • Incorporate a holistic approach to environmental responsibility in product design, development, and distribution.

To illustrate your impact, explain how your target user will benefit from your innovation as well as the broader impact of your innovation (on society or the environment, for instance). It’s also critical to show how your good idea can translate into a real business. This doesn’t mean that you need to oversell your market potential to the review committee. They’d prefer to see that you’ve identified a logical initial pathway to market that is focused, easy to follow, and attainable.

Articulate your competitive landscape

Grant application reviewers look for evidence that you’ve done your homework when it comes to your competition. This often includes:

  • A thorough competitive analysis. Include an explanation about how your innovation is different or better compared to other offerings on the market. Is it more energy efficient? Does it cost less to manufacture? Provide metrics that illustrate these differences. It’s also helpful to show that you “got out of the building” to interview potential customers and users to further demonstrate that your innovation has the potential to become a market leader.
  • Proof of due diligence around intellectual property (IP). It’s important to illustrate that you’re developing a truly novel innovation. At a minimum, show that you conducted “prior art” research. In the world of intellectual property law, prior art is the term used for relevant information that was publicly available before a patent claim.

If you’re not sure where to begin, try searching Google Patents, or seek guidance from your university’s tech transfer office. Make sure you have the right answers to crucial intellectual property questions.

Demonstrate your traction

Grant application reviewers want to see that you’re on track to commercialization. Whether it’s winning competition prizes, interviewing many potential customers, filing for a provisional patent, or forming a strategic partnership, achieving key milestones demonstrate that you’re taking actionable steps to commercialize your innovation. Proving your traction is a good way to build credibility with a grant application review committee—and help your application stand out.

Find the right support

Seek guidance and support from others in your network with experience successfully navigating the application process. That includes faculty, mentors, and other innovators who have gone through the process.

It’s also important to ask people with experience reviewing grant applications to look over your draft. Seek specific advice on how you can improve the draft, such as filling in information gaps or addressing problems the funder is looking to solve. It also doesn’t hurt to have another pair of eyes to proofread for grammar, typos, and clarity.

You can also find support in other ways, such as letters of reference from faculty, university administrators, mentors, and leaders of entrepreneurship support programs. Be sure their references support your story and vision as it relates to the grant application.

Validate your importance

Funders are interested in supporting the individuals who are going to make a real, lasting impact. They’re already eager to hear your pitch—it’s up to you to sell your big idea. Innovations aren’t developed or commercialized without people. First and foremost, funders need to know why they should invest in you. Keep the following in mind:

  • Why are you and your team the right team? Explain clearly why you are passionate and motivated to solve a problem, or how your team members have the right skill sets or experiences to execute the solution you’re proposing. Be specific!
  • Prove that you and your team are committed to moving your innovation forward. Some evidence of this could be participation in other accelerator programs, polished resumes with clearly defined roles, and whether you and your team will be pursuing the venture after graduation.

Learn more about VentureWell’s E-Team program, which supports student-led science- and engineering-based teams from across the nation in bringing their high-impact innovation out of the lab and into the market.

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