Many Long Capture clients have found great success within the AFWERX Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program because the Open Topic allows them to go into the proposal process with the mindset of the Air Force/Space Force has problem X, and our company has solution Y, which can be adapted to fit their needs.
Agencies outside of AFWERX and SpaceWERX, however, publish specific topics for their SBIRs. Therefore, a company has to go in with the mindset that the Agency has problem X, they have identified solution Y as the innovation they need, and we have the technical expertise to build solution Y for them to their exact specifications.
When it’s time to explore whether or not one of these specific topics within the SBIR program is the right fit, your first step should be the Technical Point of Contact (TPOC). Because many agencies within the Department of Defense (DoD) regularly publish specific topics within each SBIR round, it can be hard to ascertain which one is the right one. The best way to be sure? The TPOC.
Who is the TPOC?
The TPOC is the individual who in all likelihood has written the topic and with whom the small business applicant can have a conversation with if they have questions regarding the topic itself. They can help the company fully understand the topic if it seems broad and help make a decision which topic to respond to when it appears that there are multiple topics that seem appropriate.
How do I find the TPOC?
DoD solicitations are published on the DoD SBIR/STTR Home Page. Thankfully, the layout of the specific solicitations makes finding the TPOC effortless. At the end of each specific topic description within the solicitation, there is one, sometimes two, individuals with contact information called out as the TPOC. While the DoD usually only publishes email addresses, a phone number is sometimes included as well.
When should I talk to the TPOC?
It is important to remember that there are specific guidelines on when a small business can and cannot speak to the TPOC. For DoD topics, the TPOC can only answer questions during the Pre-Release period; this is a period of time, generally a month, prior to the solicitation opening for responses. Once the round is officially opened, the TPOC will no longer be available for discussion. Because of this, it is best to connect with them as early as possible.
Send an email or make a phone call to introduce yourself, indicate that you are interested in submitting a proposal and have some questions, then ask for a meeting. While phone or video meetings are best to begin building rapport, keep in mind that some TPOCs may only answer questions via email—the following advice can easily be used when prepping for a meeting or sending questions through email.
What are some DOs and DON’Ts?
Remember, there’s a high probability that multiple small businesses are reaching out to the TPOC and that their time is probably very limited. Here are some dos and don’ts to think about:
- establish a dialogue with the TPOC to get clarification on questions which will help shape your technical approach. Let the TPOC do most of the talking.
- review the solicitation, topic description, and any literature cited in the topic. You should be intimately familiar with the technical requirements of the desired solution.
- ask questions about how to craft your approach. For example, questions like “If we proposed this technology would this meet the topic need?” The TPOC is not allowed to answer this type of question.
- ask questions that are clearly addressed in the solicitation. It’s important to not waste the TPOC’s time with questions that have already been answered, and it demonstrates a lack of preparation if you ask something that you should already know.
What should I ask the TPOC?
Develop questions for the TPOC in advance. Keep questions brief and to the point. Here are some sample questions to think about in preparation for the meeting:
- Who are the end-users that will benefit from the Phase I &II work?
- What Program of Record will the solution integrate into for Phase III?
- What are the major pain points of the organization?
- How is the problem addressed currently? What are the benefits of the proposed innovation when compared to the current solution?
- Has the organization tried to solve the problem through the SBIR program in the past?
- What solutions has the organization tried that do not work?
- Is there anyone else you can connect me with to further my understanding of the need?
- There are likely technical questions that you may have based on the objective. Come in with a list of specific technical questions (i.e. cybersecurity needs, technology constraints) that will help shape your technical approach.
What comes after talking with the TPOC?
After thoroughly reading the solicitation and speaking with the TPOC, small businesses have the necessary information to make an informed decision on whether or not their technology can meet the needs of the government agency. Make an honest assessment as to whether your technology really fits the topic, whether you are prepared to submit a responsive proposal, and whether you have the expertise and people in place to build and commercialize the result.
It is important to remember that sometimes a topic may seem like a fit at the beginning, but it is okay if after more investigation, the answer is to not bid. To ensure a high return on investment, focus time and energy into only those proposals that have a solid chance of winning. There is nothing worse than putting in all the work just to find out, the proposed solution is not the one the agency needs.