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Episode 14 | Which Funding Opportunity Should You Pursue? Grants vs. Contracts

In this episode, NCI SBIR Team Leader Monique Pond and Program Director William Bozza compare and discuss the two main funding mechanisms for biotech innovators, Grants and Contracts. 

Listen to this podcast to hear:

  • Requirement differences between the two non-dilutive early-stage seed funding mechanisms, grants and contracts
  • Choosing the right funding mechanism for the technology being developed
  • Tips for submitting applications
  • Who to speak to when pursuing a grant or a contract

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Episode Guests

Monique Pond, PhD

Monique Pond - SBIR Innovation Lab Podcast Host

Monique Pond, PhD is a Program Director in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Development Center at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). She manages a portfolio of grants and contracts to small businesses developing novel cancer therapeutics, digital health technologies, and therapeutic devices. Monique leads the CARE program, Connecting Awardees with Regulatory Experts, and other collaborative initiatives with FDA to assist small businesses in navigating the regulatory pathway for their technology. She initially joined the NCI SBIR Development Center in 2018 as a Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

Prior to joining NCI, Monique spent several years as a regulatory medical writer and consultant at a small start-up where she provided clients with regulatory support for FDA, EMA, and other country submissions. She was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology where her postdoctoral research focused on the development of bioanalytical tools. Monique earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin.

 

William Bozza, PhD

William Bozza - SBIR Innovation Lab Podcast Host

William Bozza, PhD serves as a Program Director, managing a portfolio of oncology startups (SBIR & STTR awardees) to facilitate small businesses in technology commercialization for cancer diagnosis and treatment.  Dr. Bozza is currently leading the Center’s efforts on the Small Business Concept Award for early-stage high risk/high reward technologies that are targeting rare and pediatric cancers.  He is also taking the lead on the Program’s Peer Learning and Networking Webinar Series to help SBIR companies learn from peers and facilitate collaboration.

Programs Mentioned in Episode:

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Episode Transcript

MONIQUE POND:  Hello and welcome to Innovation Lab, your go to resource for all things biotech startups, brought to you today by the National Cancer Institute's Small Business Innovation Research, SBIR Development Center. Our podcast hosts interviews with successful entrepreneurs and provides resources for small businesses looking to take their cutting edge cancer solutions from lab to market. I'm Monique Pond, a Program Director and Team Lead here at NCI SBIR and I'll be today's host. 

In this episode, I'm joined by fellow podcast host and Program Director Dr. Billy Bozza to compare the two main funding mechanisms entrepreneurs can apply for, grants and contracts. As we dive into these funding mechanisms, you'll learn about the unique requirements of each and hopefully gain a sense of which one might be more appropriate for your technology. Welcome, Billy, and thanks for joining us today. 

BILLY BOZZA: Thanks, Monique. Thanks for having me. Excited to be here, excited to be on the other side of the podcast for a change. 

MONIQUE POND: All right. Well, to start us off, at a high level, how would you describe contracts versus grants to our listeners that maybe aren't familiar with these funding opportunities? 

BILLY BOZZA: Yeah. So there's a lot of different unique administrative differences, but I think for the general benefit of our audience, we should highlight on the differences that will kind of influence which funding mechanism they choose to pursue, and that's really going to boil down to the technology that the innovators are developing. So both mechanisms, grants and contracts provide non-dilutive early stage seed funding to US small businesses for R&D towards translation of a commercial product. And in both cases, the company retains all of their intellectual property. So the large majority of things that we fund in our office is on the grant sides, in terms of our portfolio breakdown, it's about 80% of our awards are for grants and 20% are for contracts. 

And on the grant side, primarily we'll refer to through the omnibus mechanism, the scope of the proposed technological solution is investigator driven. So really anything that touches a cancer patient or provider is something we would consider funding through the omnibus grant mechanism and the small business concerns can really identify and choose what that unmet medical need is and proposed solution is as well. 

Now on the flip side, our office leverages contracts to highlight high priority NCI interest areas. So every year we do a contract topic call to solicit good ideas from all of our different divisions within NCI. So the guidance I typically provide is if your technology that you're developing naturally addresses and fits into one of these contract topics, go ahead and apply through that contract mechanism and if it doesn't, then really kind of investigate and focus in on the omnibus grant mechanism. 

The other major difference I thought I would kind of highlight upfront is how much involvement NCI performs in the funding mechanism. So for grants, the NCI involvement is really quite minimal especially on the programmatic side. However, on the contracts, it's significantly more involved. We'll talk about some of these details probably later as I'm sure there's questions related to them, but there's an initial negotiation process where NCI can kind of weigh in and potentially revise and modify the statement of work a bit. So there's -- the general thing to just be aware of is there's significantly more involvement from NCI on the contract side. 

MONIQUE POND: So, if someone's listening in today and has an idea, it sounds like they want to propose their own scope of work, then they would go through the grant mechanism, you mentioned the omnibus. If they are looking at their technology and it fits within a contract topic where NCI has to find the deliverables, then it sounds like contract topic or mechanism is the way that you would suggest going. 

BILLY BOZZA: Yes, absolutely. 

MONIQUE POND: All right. So, so now that we have kind of the basics down, let's talk about money a little bit. So when a company is looking for funding either through grants or contracts, is there a difference in the size of the types of opportunities available to them? Would that be something that might change their decision one way or the other? 

BILLY BOZZA: So in terms of funding size, there's a lot of overlap. There's some subtle differences I'll speak to, but in general for phase 1 awards, and when I say phase, we refer to SBIR phases not clinical phases, so both grants and contracts utilize phase 1 awards. They’re $400,000 awards for one year projects typically focusing on proof of concept validation. Both grants and contracts utilize phase 2 awards. Our dollar amount at NCI has recently increased for phase 2 awards, they're $2.25 million, they're typically two year projects, they're for later stage research and development. 

On the grant side, there's always an option under omnibus to submit a fast track and direct to phase 2 under the SBIR mechanism. And contracts usually, it depends on the contract topic, so you’ll have to check the solicitation and see, sometimes it varies depending on the contract topic. And when we say a fast track application, that means a single application where there's both a phase 1 and phase 2 component, you know, together. 

And contracts, they're kind of nice thing for fast tracks is you can submit a phase 1 proposal only and a phase 1 and phase 2 proposal together as well and each of those gets scored independently, so you have the option to kind of see how peer reviewers see about both of those options, just the phase 1 portion with the whole fast track combined. 

The other thing to note, that's different, if you have a contract in a phase award and you're able to successfully execute those aims or objectives, you'll receive an invitation to transition to phase 2 to submit a separate proposal that undergoes a separate second peer review for our phase 2 option as well. So that's something different that doesn't happen on the grant side. 

MONIQUE POND: So thinking about peer review, is it the same peer review panels if someone applies through the omnibus grant mechanism versus the contract mechanism or are the panels themselves different? 

BILLY BOZZA: Yeah, so the panels are different. In terms of peer review as a whole, there's a lot of similarity, right. At the end of the day, these mechanisms and the peer review staff, they're looking for innovation, unmet medical need, existence of a commercial market, they're looking at the team and the resources that have been put together to tackle this project. Where the peer review is housed, though, is different. On the grant side, that's housed at the NIH level within the Center for Scientific Review. And for contracts there, they’re housed, the peer reviews are organized and housed at the institute level for NCI within the Division of Extramural Activities. 

Some of the things they score though are quite, quite similar. So for contracts, peer reviewers, peer reviewers are scoring on technical merit, innovation, commercial application, personnel, and research environment. For grants, they're scoring on significance, innovation, approach, investigators, and environment, it’s a lot of overlap there. One thing we can highlight is commercial application is specifically scored for contracts. As for grants, that's kind of just built into all the different individual criterion scores where there's not something specifically carved out for commercial application. 

Other scoring things that we can kind of note is there's numerical scoring for both contracts and grants, the lower the number, the better for grants. So a good grant would typically score in the 20s. For contracts, the higher the score, the better. So if a contract score is in the 80s, that's generally considered a pretty, pretty strong score. 

MONIQUE POND: Yeah. One thing I like to, uh, mention to, to companies when I speak with them, if they're trying to decide or between the two mechanisms or learn more about, you know, how to put together the proposals, who's going to be reading them and such, I think it's helpful to keep in mind that the grants mechanism, some of those study panels can be a bit broad scientifically, so something to consider when you're writing your application versus the panels that are put together by DEA for contracts and a specific contract topic, those typically have people on the review panel with a little bit more focused scientific background in that, that specific area. So sometimes the writing can be a little bit different for -- if you're doing a grant application versus a contract proposal.

BILLY BOZZA: So yeah, definitely that makes a lot of sense. 

MONIQUE POND: Yeah. So once a company is hopefully been successful and been awarded either a grant or contract, I think you touched on this a little bit earlier, but let's discuss a little bit more about the reporting that that they do once they've received their award. 

BILLY BOZZA: Yeah, for sure. So, for grants there's less reporting, it's done annually and at the end or conclusion of the project, companies can submit that information using ERA Commons. And for contracts, there's a lot more involvement, there is an initial kickoff meeting, there's quarterly reporting, there's a final report and a final presentation, deliverables are submitted for all of those, and typically by e-mail. 

MONIQUE POND: Yeah, that's a good point about contracts where the presentations are required both at the beginning and the end of the award period. We'll say, you know, at the NCI SBIR Development Center, we do try to, once the company receives an award on the grant side, we try to keep companies matched with the same program director just so both, both sides can kind of get to know each other a little bit better. Program directors can get to know the company and technology and team and, you know, hopefully that's beneficial to the company along the way. So, I know sometimes there will be some, you know, informal presentations on the grant side aren't necessarily required, but something that's I find certainly helpful and it was just so we can, you know, get to hopefully know the technology a bit better and provide some resources and guidance. 

BILLY BOZZA: Yeah, absolutely. If a, you know, an issue comes up or there's a little bit of a delay or slight pivot, it's always good to reach out to the program director, get their take and their guidance on what the best path forward is. Another thing we can mention here, since we're talking about deliverables, is the payment structure, so that's a little bit different between grants and contracts. 

So for grants, for the full budget, budget period year is awarded upfront into the company's PMS account and then they draw down from funds as they incur expenses related towards the project, and so that's different from contracts. So we talked about multiple deliverables and quarterly deliverables, and there's an invoice that needs to be submitted and that's associated with that. So companies submit an initial invoice when they have their opening kickoff meeting and then when they submit their quarterly deliverables. So that's one other important distinction between grants and contracts. 

MONIQUE POND: So for our listeners today, if they have questions about contract or grant opportunities, can they get in touch with you or I, or is there a different process that they should look into for each mechanism? 

BILLY BOZZA: The ability of our office to interact with stakeholders is pretty direct and open for grants, it's a little bit more guarded for contracts. So the guidance for grants, if you already have an assigned program director, that's your point of contact, reach out to them. If you're getting ready to apply and you don't have an assigned program director, I'd encourage you to check out our web page, as Monique mentioned, sbir.cancer.gov and check out our contact and staff page, you can see all of our different program directors with their different subject matter expertise. Find someone that aligns with your technology, reach out to them and we're happy to set up a call. That's the best way to kind of communicate on the grant side to make sure you're funding, you're looking at the right funding mechanisms and you have kind of the right information ready for your application. 

On the contract side, because of federal contracting law, everything has to be kind of conducted in a fair and open environment, and for that reason, all questions for contracts have to go through the federal contracting office at ncioasbir@mail.nih.gov. And depending if the question is of a scientific or programmatic nature, they'll route that question to a program director for an answer. 

MONIQUE POND: OK, that's good to know for contracts, a little bit different than reaching out to our usual mail, NCI SBII mailbox. Let's talk about how often these opportunities come up, how many receipt dates for contracts versus for the grant side?

BILLY BOZZA: Yep. On the grant side, particularly for the omnibus, there's three standard receipt dates throughout the year, January, April, September 5th, unless that falls on a weekend or holiday, then it's the next business day. And for contracts, there's an annual solicitation, it usually comes out every year in the summer with the receipt date in later fall. 

MONIQUE POND: OK, great. And what if somebody is interested in applying to both mechanisms? Could they put in an application under, you know, let's say the grant omnibus as well as the contract mechanism at the same time?

BILLY BOZZA: So, for NIH policy, there can't be the same work under peer review, two different peer review mechanisms at the same time. So you would have to kind of stagger or if there's a second technology or the same technology, a different indication, then you could potentially have, you know, both submissions and proposals under peer review at the same time. 

MONIQUE POND: Yeah, I advise people sometimes, if they're interested in contracts, to think about, you know, they can apply for the contracts, see how it goes, you know, hopefully they're successful, but if not, you know, it is a different template for grants, but they could, you know, reuse a lot of the same information, and then, you know, apply through the grant mechanism. As you mentioned, I think that's a great point, not at the same time, but, you know, for the next grant cycle. So something to keep in mind that it can -- you can have more than one shot or try both avenues, if you want. 

BILLY BOZZA: Yeah, well, that's a good strategy, it's for sure, it’s a competitive program, so sometimes it takes a couple submissions to really get, you know, the best idea expressed in a way that leads to a good funding chance success. 

MONIQUE POND: Thanks, Billy for taking time to speak with our audience today. 

BILLY BOZZA: Thanks, Monique. Thanks so much for having me, it was really great. 

MONIQUE POND: Two different funding mechanisms out there for listeners, if you're a biotech entrepreneur or looking to get started as an entrepreneur. And while we've covered a lot of the basics of contracts and grants here today, we encourage you to learn more about them by signing up for our mailing list or checking our website and attending associated webinars. 

As always, don't forget to check our website, sbir.cancer.gov for the latest funding opportunities and commercialization resources to support your journey from lab to market. This was Monique Pond from NCI SBIR. Please join us again for the next installment of NCI SBIR Innovation Lab and subscribe today wherever you listen. If you have questions about cancer or comments about this podcast, you can e-mail us at nciinfo@nih.gov or call us at 800-422-6237, and please be sure to mention Innovation lab in your query. 

We are a production of the US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. Thanks for listening, everyone.

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