We updated this article to include a new tip to writing a successful grant application. The article was published originally on August 7, 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.
As a program officer with VentureWell, I review grant applications from early-stage science and tech innovators for our E-Team Grant program. For our application review process, I work closely with a diverse panel of experts—from technical domain experts to seasoned entrepreneurs and business leaders—who look over each application carefully. From my vantage point, I can offer insights into what makes a winning grant application.
Based on my conversations with many review panels, here are eight things to keep in mind when writing your grant application.
follow the application guidelines
This seems like common sense, but I’ve seen applications from promising teams get denied because they didn’t carefully follow the guidelines. Funders put a great deal of effort to ensure the guidelines articulate exactly what’s required in the application. In a way, they’re providing you with a formula for success. Make sure you read the guidelines carefully and check off that you’ve met each requirement in your application. If you’re unsure about an application requirement, reach out to the funder for clarification or check the Frequently Asked Questions. 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 who pay attention to detail—and those who don’t. Attention to detail is a critical skill in business and entrepreneurship. It’s wise to illustrate that skill to potential funders and mentors during your initial interaction.
write for a lay audience
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 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. Make sure you’re able to describe your technology in an easy-to-digest way.
An inability to clearly explain your technology also raises the question among reviewers: does this team know what they’re doing? In my experience, clear and concise descriptions of your technology illustrates that you understand your project so well that you’re able to explain it to anyone on the fly—and they comprehend your vision. That 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,
- How that problem is currently solved.
It also helps to show evidence that your solution works and will solve the problem as you describe. In my experience, rejected proposals didn’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.
- 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.
A note of caution: don’t say that you haven’t done any research or analysis about other players in the market. This will raise a red flag among reviewers. If you’re not sure where to begin, try doing a search on Google Patents, or seek guidance from your university’s tech transfer office. I also highly recommend reading our IP 101 article, Do you have the right answers to these 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, even other innovators who have gone through the process.
I also recommend asking 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.
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.
Dave D’Angelo is a Program Officer for the Venture Development team where he supports VentureWell’s early-stage innovator programs, including E-Teams and ASPIRE. Previously, he was a lead consultant for GIZ in Laos, operated as a co-founder for two technology-based social ventures in Nepal and India, and started and grew the International Rescue Committee’s Microenterprise Development Program in Salt Lake City, Utah. David is passionate about using business as a force for good and received his Bachelor of Science from Champlain College.
Watch my YouTube video about ways to write a winning grant application.
The E-Team program supports dedicated science- and engineering-based student teams from across the nation in bringing their high-impact innovation out of the lab and into the market.