For decades, the National Science Foundation has depended on a legacy system called FastLane for small businesses and startups to submit proposals for scientific research grants and interact with the agency.
But to anyone who’s not a full-time research expert seeking NSF funding, the platform hardly lived up to its name. For entrepreneurs and startups in particular — who are typically unfamiliar with the process of applying for government grants and often the most in need of them — it was cumbersome and difficult to navigate, according to Ben Schrag, NSF program director of Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer.
“They are not experts. They’re almost by definition new to the process of government funding,” Schrag said. “And for entrepreneurs, generally grant-writing is not a standard skill set for them. Their skill set is pitching investors and things like that. So we don’t necessarily even want them to become experts, because that’s a lot of time that they could be spending building their companies.”
But it’s those innovative, bootstrapped entrepreneurs and small businesses that NSF aspires to reach through the program, which is also known as America’s Seed Fund, because they tend to overperform in terms of return on investment and driving meaningful, transformative outcomes.
It was clear NSF had to create a more modern front-end process to better connect with this community. To do so, the foundation decided, it needed to help entrepreneurs get a quick “yes” or “no” before requiring them to enter the official grants submittal portal.
That’s where the idea for Project Pitch came from: A quick submission portal that sits in front of FastLane catered to entrepreneurs and startups, who, if they are a good fit, get an official invitation from NSF to submit a full proposal and help along the way.
Project Pitch allows NSF to “help them through it,” said Kelly Monterroso, a communications specialist at NSF. “So we know that if we invite them to submit a proposal, because they’ve gone through the project pitch process, we know who they are, we can hold webinars just for them, we can just really help them through their registration, all the paperwork that they need to submit. So it’s a way that we can help them through our process.”
The need for startup speed
Schrag himself spent the first part of his career at a startup. Before joining NSF, he became quite familiar with FastLane in search of funding. During that period, he learned just how impenetrable, in fact, the FastLane process can be.
Because NSF uses the scientific peer review process to review proposals, there’s “a lot of technical detail in the documents, and then the [back-end, review] process happens and there’s not a lot of feedback. You would go through Fastlane, you submit a proposal, and then you wouldn’t hear anything for months, because you would just be waiting for the process to happen,” he said.
But that doesn’t reflect how the entrepreneurial community works. For startups, speed is the name of the game.
In comparison, the Project Pitch gives startups a response in less than three weeks.
Monterroso said Schrag and NSF’s small business program directors recognized this incongruity given their own experiences. “They are former entrepreneurs, they’ve started companies, they know what it’s like to need money to survive. And having lived that experience, they knew the need for speed and having a really quick ability to get back to a startup… They recognize that startups will often fail if they don’t get funding right away.”
On top of that, Schrag saw the need to treat grant applicants as customers and give them the best experience possible. “We want the best entrepreneurs to apply.”
The move to a modernized CRM
That prompted NSF staff to investigate what other government agencies were using and talk to their advisory committee about different products. At the end that review, the decision was made to test a customer relationship management platform offered by Salesforce, already in use elsewhere in small business innovation research programs across government.
“What we really wanted was out-of-the-box software that we could just pretty easily turn on,” Monterroso said.
Salesforce’s Service Cloud Lightning Edition, a software-as-a-service platform that allowed the agency to design what it needed for entrepreneurs to submit a Project Pitch, offered the best path forward, according to Schrag. NSF also opted to pair the CRM platform with a cloud-based, email marketing tool called Pardot, also from Salesforce, to better engage applicants and keep track of those interactions.
“The lack of upfront cost is really important because this is a pilot. It’s still a pilot, honestly. We’re still changing things,” he said. But the ability to start small and move quickly was just as important.
“Again, we were all entrepreneurs in our former lives and the kind of calling card of current startups is the minimum viable product. So we have some questions we want to answer. Let’s get to those answers as quickly as possible. And we can always iterate and change and develop things later,” Schrag said.
“The idea was, what’s the smallest amount of money and time we can spend to just test whether this thing, this process works, whether the entrepreneurial community likes it, whether the program directors find it useful? And then you go from there.”
Once the system was set up, all NSF had to do was add the application to its website as a form and create new content and webpages around the process, Monterroso said. Training was fairly minimal and all-in-all, the process wasn’t major undertaking, she said.
But the results were meaningful, Schrag said. “We had almost universally positive feedback from the community, which we weren’t sure we would get. But again, the whole idea of having this on-ramp seems to be very appealing.”
It even paid added dividends when the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly started dominating everyone’s attention.
Schrag said NSF was able to use the platform to call for proposals from “small businesses who think they have innovative technology that can potentially and relatively rapidly impact the current situation.”
On the backend, NSF simply created a tag in the system that allows program directors to quickly find COVID-related research applications as soon as they’re submitted.
“And this ability to have them submit a small amount of information with a fast turn through,” Schrag said, has helped put the promise of fast back into FastLane. “The case management platform is really what makes it go.”