Getting a grant...or a startup

Y Combinator is company that invests in startups and brings them to the San Francisco area to get them ready for prime time. One of the co-founders is Paul Graham, whose essays we’ve featured on this blog.

The Y Combinator web site itself is quite interesting and in particular, the section on how to apply to Y Combinator caught my eye. Now, I don’t know the first thing about starting a startup (nor do I have any current interest in doing so), but I do know a little bit about applying for NIH grants and it struck me that the advice for the startups seemed very useful for writing grants. It surprised me because I always thought that the process of “marketing” a startup to someone would be quite different from applying for a grant—-startups are supposed to be cool and innovative and futuristic while grants are more about doing the usual thing. Just shows you how much I know about the startup world.

I thought I’d pluck out a few good parts from Graham’s long list of advice that I found useful. The full essay is definitely worth reading.

Here’s one that struck me immediately:

If we get 1000 applications and have 10 days to read them, we have to read about 100 a day. That means a YC partner who reads your application will on average have already read 50 that day and have 50 more to go. Yours has to stand out. So you have to be exceptionally clear and concise. Whatever you have to say, give it to us right in the first sentence, in the simplest possible terms.

In that past, I always thought that grant reviewers had all the time in the world to read my grant and probably dedicated a week of their life to reading it. Hah! Having served on study sections now, I realize there’s precious little time to dedicate to the tall pile of grants that need to be read. Grants that are well written are a pleasure to read. Ones that are poorly written (or take forever to get to the point) just make me angry.

It’s a mistake to use marketing-speak to make your idea sound more exciting. We’re immune to marketing-speak; to us it’s just noise. So don’t begin…with something like

We are going to transform the relationship between individuals and information.

That sounds impressive, but it conveys nothing. It could be a description of any technology company. Are you going to build a search engine? Database software? A router? I have no idea.

One test of whether you’re explaining your idea effectively is to ask how close the reader is to reproducing it. After reading that sentence I’m no closer than I was before, so its content is effectively zero.

I usually tell people if at any stage of writing a grant you have a choice between being more general and more specific, always be more specific. That way people can judge you based on the facts, not based on their imagination of the facts. This doesn’t always lead to success, of course, but it can remove an element of chance. If a reviewer has to fill in the details of your idea, who knows what they’ll think of?

One reason [company] founders resist giving matter-of-fact descriptions [of their company] is that they seem to constrain your potential. “But [my product] is so much more than a database with a wiki UI!” The problem is, the less constraining your description, the less you’re saying. So it’s better to err on the side of matter-of-factness.

Of course, there are some applications that specifically ask you to “think big” and there the rules may be a bit different. But still, I think it’s better to avoid broad and sweeping generalities. These days, given the relatively tight page limits, you need to convey the maximum amount of information possible.

One good trick for describing a project concisely is to explain it as a variant of something the audience already knows. It’s like Wikipedia, but within an organization. It’s like an answering service, but for email. It’s eBay for jobs. This form of description is wonderfully efficient. Don’t worry that it will make your idea seem “derivative.” Some of the best ideas in history began by sticking together two existing ideas no one realized could be combined.

Not sure this is so relevant to writing grants, but I thought was interesting. My instinct was to think that this would make your idea seem derivative also, but maybe not.

…if we can see obstacles to your idea that you don’t seem to have considered, that’s a bad sign. This is your idea. You’ve had days, at least, to think about it, and we’ve only had a couple minutes. We shouldn’t be able to come up with objections you haven’t thought of.

Paradoxically, it is for this reason better to disclose all the flaws in your idea than to try to conceal them. If we think of a problem you don’t mention, we’ll assume it’s because you haven’t thought of it. 

This is one definitely true—better to reveal limitations/weaknesses than to look like you haven’t thought of them. Because if a reviewer finds one, then it’s all they’ll talk about. Often times, a big problem is lack of space to fit this in, but if you can do it I think it’s always a good idea to include it.

Finally,

You don’t have to sell us on you. We’ll sell ourselves, if we can just understand you. But every unnecessary word in your application subtracts from the effect of the necessary ones. So before submitting your application, print it out and take a red pen and cross out every word you don’t need. And in what’s left be as specific and as matter-of-fact as you can.

I think there are quite a few differences between scientists reviewing grants and startup investors and we probably shouldn’t take the parallels too seriously. In particular, investors I think are going to be more optimistic because, as Graham says, “they get equity”. Scientists are trained to be skeptical and so will be looking at applications with a slightly different eye.

However, I think the general advice to be specific and concise about what you’re doing is good. If anything, it may help you realize that you have no idea what you’re doing.

 
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