Monthly Archives: March 2016

Links: Vaccines work, legalizing drugs, energy progress, prosecutors and prostitutes, and more!

* “Vaccine Has Sharply Reduced HPV in Teenage Girls, Study Says.” This one verges on the obvious, but it’s worth reiterating. Vaccines really are a public health free lunch. FQHCs take note.

* I don’t know if this story is on the level, but: “How schools around the country are turning dead Microsoft PCs into speedy Chromebooks.” See also our post on Geek Heresy and how technology is not going to magically save schools.

* Scientists are floored by what’s happening in the Arctic right now.

* Good signs in the fight against pointless drug prohibition: Mayor wants to open supervised injection facility for heroin in NY city.

* “A Long Game:” How California cities became as screwed up as they are, and how to fix them.

* “Here’s How Electric Cars Will Cause the Next Oil Crisis;” one hopes so!

* “There is a better way to parent than the nuclear family” should be obvious; see also The Anthropology of Childhood.

* “The rechargeable revolution: A better battery: Chemists are reinventing rechargeable cells to drive down costs and boost capacity.”

* Why America abandoned nuclear power (and what we can learn from South Korea); could also be titled, “How to reduce the cost of nuclear power.”

* “Can NATO and the EU survive Donald Trump, French nationalists, and a ‘Brexit?’” A scarier article than I ever imagined reading. We are our own worst enemies.

* The headline is too polite, but: Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans. This is likely to be of particular interest to FQHCs.

* Kofi Annan on why it’s time to legalize drugs.

* “The forgotten survivors of AIDS,” a shocking and moving story, or rather set of stories, that you should probably not read if you’re at work.

* “After Cash: All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses a Bank Account.” The drive towards cashless societies baffles me, since it further concentrates an enormous amount of power in the hands of unaccountable, indifferent, power-mad bureaucrats, while enabling already pervasive government and big business snooping.

* “Prosecutor known for fighting prostitution charged with paying for sex hundreds of times;” the phrase “victimless crime” comes to mind.

* Good news (well, the bringing-killers-to-justice part is good, the death part is not): “A toddler got meningitis. His anti-vac parents gave him an herbal remedy. The toddler died. Now his parents are on trial.”

* Self-driving cars may still be decades out.

Should your startup seek Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants?

In response to Sam Altman’s great post “Hard tech is back,” someone on Hacker News pointed out that hard tech companies should apply for Small Business Innovation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants (both programs provide funding to small companies that are commercializing research). There are excellent reasons to apply, which we’ll recapitulate: most Federal agencies are required to make SBIR/STTR funds available; grants for Phase I go up to $225,000, and Phase II grants go up to $2 million; a large amount of money is available (most years see SBIR/STTR budget allocations in the billions); unlike venture capital (VC) funding, federal money doesn’t require giving up shares in return for funding; and, finally, the feds may fund ideas VCs won’t. The “feds may fund ideas VCs won’t” is particularly but not exclusively true of hard tech projects.

So far, so good. But while the upsides are real, and we’re incentivized to emphasize them, the downsides are too. One is simple timing: if the appropriate SBIR / STTR funding cycle just concluded for that year, your startup may have to wait another year to apply.* Then another 2 – 3 months for a decision. Then longer for final budget approval and contract execution. A year is a very long time for a startup. The other day a potential client called whose best potential SBIR source had had a deadline the month prior.

Second, Phase 1 grants can just be too small for the amount of effort that goes into them.

Third, SBIRs/STTRs don’t come with the advice, community, or expertise of good VCs. Applicants may still get to meet some professors in their field or other experts, but those connections seem to be weaker than the connections good VCs generate.

Fourth, applications take a lot of effort to prepare, and for first-time grant writers they can be quite hard. The alternative is to hire someone like us. While I’m biased towards doing that for obvious reasons, we also cost money. I can’t say whether our fees are low, high, or just right—as discussed at the link, we get all three reactions—but our fees are real and no qualified grant writer will ever work for contingent fees.**

Just finding the appropriate SBIR/STTR program and RFP can be hard, since different Federal departments publish RFPs at different times and focus areas typically differ in each competition. Reading the RFP is hard for the uninitiated, for the same reason that reading legal documents is hard for the uninitiated. Most of us who don’t know Python would find Python source code hard to understand.

Fifth, I can’t think of any major companies that got started through SBIRs/STIRs. I did do some searching, and the NIH website gives us some examples, like Genzyme, MARTEX, Sonicare and Abbot Medical Optics. There must be others, and if you know of them I’d love to hear more. In contrast to SBIR/STTR-funded companies, the number of VC- and Y Combinator-backed startups is too long a list to bother reciting, especially since it includes almost every large tech company.

While I don’t want to talk anyone out of applying for a SBIR/STIR, I do want to emphasize that the downsides are considerable. For many if not most startups, applying to Y Combinator is going to be more efficient than seeking SBIRs/STTRs. Still, it’s possible to do both, and for some hard tech companies “both” may be a more interesting answer than either one on its own.

EDIT: A few readers (and some callers) are incredulous that we can write scientific and technical grants; this explains how we do it, as well as some of our strengths and limitations. We’re not experts in any scientific engineering, or technical disciplines, but we are very good at integrating material from a particular discipline for a particular project and we’re also good at asking questions, listening to the answers, and using those answers.


* We’re using the word “startup” as VCs and founders themselves use it—as a term that denotes a small company that plans to grow fast and become a big company, usually via technology and technological innovation / deployment. In this sense most small businesses are not startups: They’re restaurants and consulting practices and nail salons and so on.

** One time I talked to a Y Combinator-backed nonprofit that wanted us to work for contingent fees, and my contact person didn’t grok why grant writers won’t work that way.

In grant writing, you don’t have to be great; you only have to be better than the other guy

You don’t need to submit the perfect grant application (assuming the “perfect application” even exists); you just need to be better than the other guy.

A story: Years ago we we wrote a string of funded grants for a majority-minority California city. The city was not particularly well run and some of its workers were indicted for corruption. But the feds kept pouring money into the city because, while it was messed up, it was still better run than other majority-minority cities at that time. The city wasn’t going to win any good government awards, but it was less corrupt than the alternatives. So the proposals we wrote got funded because the feds wanted to fund a majority-minority city somewhere west of the Mississippi and there weren’t (and still aren’t) many choices.

This pattern repeats itself. A couple years ago we wrote a funded HRSA Service Area Competition (SAC) proposal for a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in a medium-sized city.* In and of itself this isn’t interesting, because we write lots of funded HRSA proposals. This FQHC client, however, failed to tell us that, as we wrote the first draft, some of their officers were being indicted on corruption charges. Our FQHC client had competition from another large, local nonprofit, which applied for the same SAC grant.

Given our client’s legal problems, we figured they’d never get their SAC grant renewed. We were wrong.

We later discovered why HRSA funded our client: The other SAC applicant was facing corruption charges too, and it had a big federal grant pulled. Our HRSA client kept getting funded because, it was probably the lesser of two evils, and HRSA had to fund someone. Without a SAC grantee in the city, at least 15,000 Medicaid patients would’ve had nowhere to go for primary care.

What makes this story even more fun is the the second nonprofit was also a former client, albeit for a non-HRSA grant. And, of course, the second client also didn’t tell us about their corruption woes when we were writing their proposal.

One sees this general principle in other areas. Tech workers, for example, are now increasingly fleeing Silicon Valley. San Francisco’s draconian land-control policies mean that expanding housing supply is almost impossible. Restricting supply in the face of rising demand causes prices to rise. Silicon Valley’s situation is uniquely insane on the national stage, as this article describes.

Seattle—while not exactly a paragon of good, fast local governance—is allowing more housing units to be built than San Francisco, and it’s even building underground light rail services that are getting done on-time and under-budget. Light rail construction is going so well that residents want more transit tunneling. There is also no income tax in Washington State, which makes Seattle a much less expensive place to live than the Bay Area. Consequently, tech companies and tech workers are leaving California for Seattle—not because Seattle is perfect, but because it’s better and more functional than its southern neighbor. Even highly paid tech workers are voting with their wallets and feet.

Analogies to dating are so obvious that I won’t belabor them here, although I will say that Briefly noted: Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game is an excellent take on the subject.

Potential clients often ask us whether they should apply for a particular grant. We can never tell them definitively, but we do say that if they don’t apply, they definitely won’t get funded. We’ve seen numerous apparent underdogs get funded because they applied and the presumed favorites didn’t, or because they applied and the presumed favorites messed up their application, or because they applied and the funder was sick of the presumed favorite. To get funded, you don’t necessarily have to be the “best,” whatever that may mean. You only have to be better than the other guy.


* At least one Section 330 SAC grant is available for virtually every geographic area in the United States; those grants are used to fund primary healthcare services for predominantly low-income people. Without them, many large FQHCs would not be able to operate. Funded FQHCs must compete to keep their Section 330 funding about every three years when HRSA issues a new SAC RFP for their area.