By Sean Ekins, Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Author of “Winning Grants”
As a founder and CEO of a small pharmaceutical company based in the U.S., I have aggressively pursued funding from the NIH and DOD (Department of Defense) instead of venture capital, angel, or other dilutive funding. Many of the grants from the NIH have been from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs which are competitive and focused on technological innovation. Having recently written a short book called “Winning Grants”, what follows are some of the highlights to inspire others who may be keen to follow this pathway and alongside this I provide an explanation for my motivation for doing this.
I should begin by providing a little information on my research background which has been focused on absorption, distribution metabolism, excretion and toxicology (ADME/Tox) and drug discovery for over 27 years, starting as a postdoc at Eli Lilly and then working at Pfizer and a small computational drug discovery start-up biotech by the early 2000s. I enjoyed writing papers, so I had a publication record in the area of computational ADME/Tox at that time which I was able to leverage. My experience in writing grants did not begin in academia but after I moved to a start-up company focused on systems biology software called GeneGo. They had a Phase I Small business grant before I joined, and it was my goal to help develop their software and further fund it with a bigger ($500,000) Phase II grant. Having never written a grant before, I remember trying to learn what was needed and reaching out to the program officer before writing and rewriting. I was not successful at the first attempt, but I read the comments from reviewers carefully and resubmitted. This Phase II grant was funded in 2005 and kick started my interest in grants as a way to fund startups. After I left the company, several years later it was sold to Thomson Reuters. In the interim I had helped an academic startup company win 3 small business grants in a year before joining a further software company called Collaborative Drug Discovery, focused on creating an accessible database for storing high throughput screening data, performing data analysis and ultimately computational modeling of it.
My role was again to write STTR and SBIR grants and demonstrate as well as develop applications of the software. I was able to write and win several grants with this company in my 8 years with them, bringing in several millions of dollars in funding. As I met other researchers at conferences, I would tell them about how there was an alternative way to bring in funding which was relatively free of strings attached. It surprised me that few of the scientists I spoke to knew about these types of grants, as most thought of the NIH and RO1 grants and other very competitive mechanisms common for academics. At one conference in 2011 after sitting across the table from a parent of a child with an ultra-rare disease, I casually mentioned how these types of grants might be a way to help fund a rare disease company too. The parent went away and subsequently started a company called Phoenix Nest and several months later I was a co-founder and writing grants with scientists working on the rare disease. In this case it was several years before we had a grant that was funded, but after one it soon became 5 STTR grants and over $7.5M was raised to fund the scientists, build the company, and develop potential treatments.
There is a pattern up until this point in that I was working for other people and their companies, winning them grants that would fund Intellectual property (IP), develop products or molecules to ultimately reach customers and create revenue for the company. In 2015 after hesitating for far too long I finally started my own company Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and hatched a plan to write a few grants with various academic collaborators to ease myself into it. By 2016 and the first grant for this new company, I was now working at two small companies that I had been able to fund through small business grants. After a couple, more years it became too complicated balancing CEO roles at both companies, so I focused on the newest one and to date have raised approximately $16.7M in funding.
Having observed the impact that such grants can bring in hiring people for small companies, developing technologies, (such as software, molecules), building companies and enabling the creation of IP I realized that more people need to be aware that there is funding out there that is within reach. 2020-2021 was a rough year for winning grants because it seemed most of the focus was on funding COVID research. I thought I had lost my grant winning touch.
When it was suggested that I should write a book on how to win such grants, I started to make some notes on what it would contain, but this activity was pleasantly interrupted when the dry grant spell was broken with a couple of new grants awarded in quick succession. The timing was excellent as the company was close to running out of money and then suddenly, the grants came in and in quick succession, we also had a couple of customers for our software that had been developed with SBIR funding. The only way I was going to write a book now was to allocate a dedicated block of time for it. So, I ended up writing the first draft in a week over the Christmas holidays 2021 breaking the book up into over a dozen chapters and writing a couple a day (see Box 1). My goal was to give an overview of what it took to write, submit, and importantly WIN a grant. Initially this draft was quite short and lacked figures or examples. I then left the manuscript for over 6 months before reading it again.
My next few iterations added examples and figures from my own grants and a case study on one of our recent grants. I then reached out to the publisher (Springer/AAPS) after the suggestion from a colleague. Once there was sufficient interest in the book, I then completed the draft and submitted it for review before the end of 2022. In the space of approximately 18 years, I have gone from learning how to write such grants and importantly win them, to writing the book so I can share my strategies with others. A great example of life coming full circle.
What did I learn?
While I had written upwards of hundreds of grants and won a good percentage of them, I had not previously given much thought or analysis about how I did it or the approach I was taking. Admittedly I had evolved a style and method to writing and submitting such grants without consciously considering it. I just did what was needed and got on with the next one in the same manner as the one before. I had also served on many study sections and in the process reviewed numerous grant types from NIH grants through to foundation grants, so I also possessed a good idea of what reviewers like me were looking for as well. Writing the book gave me the opportunity to think more about the process, my motivations, habits (good and bad) and helped me with grants I was submitting in the intervening year. I realized not only that I had created a ‘process’ but also perhaps because of my nature that I did not give up easily, this stubbornness made me persevere even after repeated failure until I eventually won or could take it no more.
The reader can learn from my first-hand experience writing and winning grants and I try to tell the story in my voice as well. Much of it is a process far removed from science with plenty to do before even writing about what you want to develop. But these preliminary steps are just as important and so I explain what you need to do before you write a grant, as well as describe why it is important to have a really good idea to begin with (although I don’t think it needs to be an original one). Also, there are several decisions to make early on such as whether you should do a grant solo or collaborate which is key and this may depend on your company stage, your experience, your collaborator’s expertise and so on. I do not ordinarily wake up and think I am an entrepreneur (for one I do not have the billions of dollars one normally associates with a Mark Cuban or others), but if you have self-funded, boot-strapped and founded your own company I would say that makes you an entrepreneur. You must begin somewhere! You may not be an expert on writing or winning grants but along the way I have found that I have picked up a few tips to help a proposal shine. When I started writing grants in the early 2000’s grants were printed out and sent by Fedex to the NIH. Of course, you cannot imagine doing that now as the grant package is submitted on-line. My iterative approach had to change to reflect this. With writing being only the start before multiple editing steps. But I still tend to print out my proposal and read through it before a final edit.
It is remarkable how many additional typos or errors I can find in the printed version but miss them when I just read them on a screen. I would highly recommend taking this step.
Then the next challenge of knowing when to stop editing such that it is now ready to submit is also critical. There are only so many times you can rearrange the figures, just make sure you add a legend, and the figures are large enough to be legible, which goes without saying. Then once you have submitted a grant there are further important steps you can take to help you to win the grant such as responding in a timely fashion to requests from the NIH program officer. Finally, I provide a case study on what it takes to win a grant which also illustrates that you should not give up even after repeated rejections.
Who would read a book like this?
When I was starting out writing grants, I often wished there was a book that I could dip into to provide inspiration or tips on how to do it. I did not find it. I ended up learning by trial and error. Writing and submitting grants, reading and ultimately responding to the reviewers comments, adjusting the proposal and repeating it over and over again. My target is those that may be totally new to grants whether academics or entrepreneur scientists interested in starting their own companies and looking to fund them using small business grants or other types of grants. Alternatively, like me, you might have been hired to help write grants and now you need to win them too. If you can learn to do this on someone else’s nickel, hone your skills and then when you feel you know what you are doing, you could then leave and try for yourself. While I did not start my own company until I was into my late 40’s the target the book is written for are all ages and experiences in the pharmaceutical or device industry and that’s another reason I tried to keep it close to 100 pages. Perhaps younger scientists may get the inspiration to start their own company after reading this short book. Similarly, parents of children with rare diseases might also want to start their own company to develop treatments. This book may show them a way to do it perhaps by bringing on board a scientist to act as their principal investigator.
Pieces of Wisdom
- Read the grant instructions carefully. Each type of grant is different, small business grants are no exception.
- Give yourself plenty of time to write your first grant – perhaps at least a month at first.
- Get a colleague to read it before you submit it and listen to their critical feedback.
- Make sure you submit everything requested for the grant in question.
- Spend more time than you would think polishing your Biosketch and Aims because reviewers will pay attention to these, and it will likely set their review tone.
- Include really good quality letters of support and make it clear what if anything they will offer to the project.
- In Phase II grants Commercialization is an important component so make sure that you spend a long time on this section – do not neglect it and use all 12 pages – add references in the bibliography to save space.
- Check for typos and other errors and make sure you close any gaps that a reviewer might pick apart. Print out the proposal and read/markup as needed as you will see typos you miss on a screen.
- If you need to resubmit a proposal, make sure you respond to all the major reviewer comments and be civil in your response as the reviews are there to help you.
- Don’t give up, try again, resubmit and when you are done, treat yourself to something you enjoy as a reward. It is important to give yourself something to look forward to at the end of the process!
A good place to start is a phase 1 grant as these are relatively small – consisting of a 6-page strategy and 1 page aims, alongside the usual biosketches etc. A phase II grant is a 12-page strategy, 12-page commercialization and 1 page aims as well as everything else. By my simple math, that’s about 4-5x the amount of work of a Phase I grant. The amount of money available for a Phase II grant is also significantly higher as well. You should plan your time according for each type of grant. The first grant you do will take far longer than you planned. Give yourself at least a month to get it all together.
It is important with small business grants to remember that you are winning grants for your company (or someone else’s if you are an employee) , so it is critical to give the impression that you not only have the capabilities but also the laboratory or office facilities to do the proposed work. The facilities section is a potentially infinite section so it would be helpful to impress the reviewers by sharing what you have access to. Add some pictures of your lab and or office as well as any key equipment as these can save significant descriptions and the reviewer can see your space and that you have the equipment needed. It may also be helpful to include an office floorplan too and any details about the rest of your team, consultants, legal, accounting and more.
Conclusion: now go write a grant!
While I cannot guarantee that you will win a grant, I do think it is comparable to a lottery. If you do not buy a ticket, you will never win anyway. With grant writing, you must write and submit a grant, that is a start. You could of course pay a professional grant writer to do this for you, and there are plenty of companies offering this service, but what fun would that be if you do not get to experience the highs and lows of putting at least one grant together yourself! Ultimately when you win there is the dopamine rush and then your work really begins. You have to do the work you proposed. It is still exciting all these years later when we win another grant. In our case that is not only SBIR and STTR, but also R21, R01, UG2/UG3, DOD, DTRA and grant supplements as well.
It is also worth checking to see if your state offers matching grants or additional support once you win a grant. Our very first grant at Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, Inc. was an STTR which gave us the opportunity to submit a matching grant from our state (One NC matching grant). This relatively simple application took me about 4 hours of work to fill out all the forms and get them signed by a notary, and several weeks later I found out that it would yield $32,000 over the next year. This by far represented the highest return on investment on any writing I had done up to that point. More importantly it helped us fund an employee, get software we needed and more.
A good place to start for a grant is a topic you know well and for which you may have some prior work that you can include as proof of concept. Having publications in that area will also help because I find that if you go into a completely new area, then you almost certainly must prove yourself to the reviewers, and if you do not have a record of working in that proposed area it will often work against you. It may take years before you win over such a skeptical study section. Papers are worth their weight in gold in my opinion.
My passion for trying to win grants is because it has provided some remarkable opportunities, helped my company support hiring our key staff, it has also funded academic labs (our collaborators) to do experiments that have led to publications and patents, ultimately the science we do has also moved ahead. I have consistently shown that small business grants can help to build small companies. The next stage will be becoming independent of such grants as the company becomes self-sustaining. At this point, the grants will have done their job and seeded the company.
Hopefully, this brief introduction to why I have written a book on winning grants will have piqued your interest, provided some novel insights and perhaps now you will consider starting a company, writing, and winning a grant in the future. If I can do it you can too! Good Luck.
The NIH, DOD, DTRA and NC Department of Commerce are kindly acknowledged for funding. I would like to thank all at Springer/AAPS who have been very supportive during the process of publishing the book. Dr. Maggie Hupcey is kindly acknowledged for the inspiration to do this. Dr. Anthony J. Hickey is thanked for suggesting Springer/AAPS. The grants we have won would not have been possible without my colleagues at Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, Inc. who have assisted with ideas, writing, and generating data for them.
Sean Ekins, Winning Grants, Springer / AAPS, 2023.
About the author
Sean is founder and CEO of Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, Inc. which is focused on using machine learning approaches for rare and neglected disease drug discovery. Sean graduated from the University of Aberdeen, receiving his M.Sc., Ph.D. in Clinical Pharmacology and D.Sc. in Science. He has authored or co-authored >356 peer reviewed papers, book chapters, edited 5 books on different aspects of drug discovery research and written a book on ‘Winning Grants’. His interests include the dual use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and coverage of his research has also appeared in the Economist, Financial Times, Washington Post and most recently in a Netflix documentary (Unknown: Killer Robots).
The layout of the book
Chapter 1 – Why you need this book
This chapter forms an introduction to non-dilutive small business grants and the authors experience of winning grants over his career. It provides a high-level overview of what it takes to write and win them as well as scale this process to enable you to write many grants in parallel.
Chapter 2 – What you need to do before you write a grant
Preparing for writing a small business grant requires you to bring together several items that can be gathered beforehand. These include preparing a biosketch and writing about your facilities and equipment. The chapter includes the authors example biosketch.
Chapter 3 – The idea
Every grant requires a central idea, and you need to come up with it. This chapter provides some examples from the author’s own experience. Timing may also be important interms of when you have this ideas, as well as an awareness of what ideas may be received well.
Chapter 4 – Go solo or collaborate?
You may be well positioned to pursue and write a grant solo, while in other cases you may benefit from the experience of a collaborator. Knowing when to go in either direction is important as is selection of a collaborator and some considerations are presented along with the pros and cons.
Chapter 5 – What the entrepreneur needs to know
Before you write and win the grant that could determine the success of your company, there are several things the budding entrepreneur needs to know that will set them up for success. These include office or lab space, hiring staff, the need for book-keeping, legal assistance and generally what it takes to run a company.
Chapter 6 – The grant package
This chapter describes all the main parts of the grant package with examples from the authors grants. These sections include the cover letter, narrative, aims, research strategy, references, budget justification, facilities and resources, equipment, authentication, resource sharing plan, SBIR/STTR commercialization history, commercialization plan, vertebrate plan, select agent research, human subjects, introduction, progress report, multiple PI plan, consortium agreements. Some of these documents will receive more focus such as the aims and strategy.
Chapter 7 – The main event – writing it
Writing the grant can be overwhelming so this chapter eases the reader into the authors strategies for making this easier whether doing this solo or as part of a collaboration. The first draft is just the beginning.
Chapter 8 – Edit, Polish, Shine and Repeat
It is likely that what you write in the first draft will need editing and further refinement. This chapter makes the point that it should go through several iterations until you eventually draw the line and stop.
Chapter 9 – Are you ready to submit it?
When you are finally happy with what you have written you need to then submit it and depending on the grant system this may involve several validation steps. It is possible there are things that hold you up at this point and it is important to check steps here to avoid catastrophe.
Chapter 10 - Post submission steps to win the grant
The grant submission is not the end and could be considered as the beginning. Post review there are several steps you can take to provide additional information to the NIH before the actual acceptance of a grant. Knowing what to do from ‘Just in time’ through to when the NIH program officer requests more forms for you to fill out is important.
Chapter 11 – An SBIR case study
This chapter shares a case study from the author from the beginning to several successful grant awards. This example shows the need for persistence and how the process can be lengthy.
This section makes the case that once you have the first grant you should try to win more and go after different types of grants. This section also shares some of the author’s experiences with much larger grants as well.