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With Emelie Lucas

Laying the Groundwork for a Successful Grant Application

The journey towards securing a grant award can seem daunting. Initiating the search and preparation for a grant application demands substantial legwork. Those who are unprepared run the risk of wasting valuable time chasing funding they’ll never win. But founders that stay one step ahead at every stage of the grant application process - from looking for solicitations to financial reporting - will position themselves in a favorable stance to receive funding, and will be better prepared for the administrative burden that comes with it.

Emelie Lucas is the Director of Grants Management for Climate Finance Solutions, and has managed over 700 grant applications over the course of her career. We sat down with her to discuss what pieces you need to put in place before kicking off the application process, and how to prevent your business from running into any trouble when it starts spending the funding.  

This is the first of many pieces we're publishing together with Climate Finance Solutions to provide tactical guidance to climate entrepreneurs around winning and managing grants.

First steps

If you’re planning to apply for federal funding, you’ll need to register with the System for Award Management (SAM) site and receive a unique entity identification number (UEI) - this is essentially the equivalent of your social security number when it comes to getting federal funding. It can take anywhere from a week to six months to get one. In order to submit an application for federal funding, you are required to provide a UEI. Receiving a UEI tends to take longer for companies that have an international aspect to their business, as this can hold up the background checks, as well as brand new businesses who haven’t completed their first year of taxes. Make sure you’ve left yourself plenty of time so that any delay doesn’t mean you miss out on an application window.

Finding the right solicitation

The first step to finding a suitable grant program is deciding on a concrete goal that you hope to achieve with the funding - it needs to be much more detailed than the generic aim of growing your business. You can then seek out solicitations which are targeted at helping businesses achieve this specific purpose, and are relevant to the technology you’re seeking to commercialize.

Finding solicitations can be challenging, as there’s no central database where everything is collated that you can comb through. A way to think through this is to decide which funding agencies are most relevant to your field - maybe that’s USDA or the Department of Energy - and go to them individually to see what they’re offering.

Founders often waste a lot of time applying for grants that they aren't actually eligible for, so hiring a consultant can be immensely valuable at this stage, even before it comes to writing your application. Leading consultants in the space maintain a current and in-depth knowledge of the grant landscape and will be able to direct you to the solicitations that you have the strongest chance of winning.

Reach out to the grant program officer

Whether the solicitation you’re interested in runs on a rolling basis, the full announcement hasn’t been released yet, or you just have a question about the program, you can get ahead of the game by reaching out to the program officer. You’ll usually find their contact information at the bottom of the announcement, or if the solicitation is listed in Grants.gov, you can find their contact information in the “Package” tab of the announcement after selecting “Preview”. Schedule a meeting with them to tell them about your company and technology.

Framing your questions the right way is important– for example, you can't ask "Would we get a better score if we had an academic partner?" Instead, you should phrase the same question as "Would our application benefit from receiving industry expertise from an academic partner?" At this stage, most program officers will be relatively forthcoming about whether an opportunity is a good fit for you, or if there’s something coming down the line that you’d be better suited for. Ultimately, their goal is for people to participate in these solicitations, so don’t be shy and ask all the questions that are top of mind. They’ll let you know if it is something they can answer or not.

Getting your ducks in a row before you receive an award

Grant funding often comes with lots of strings attached so be prepared for a hefty administrative burden. Here are some things you can do beforehand to make the process of financial and progress reporting as easy as possible:

1. Speak to your accountant

Check if your accountant is Defense Contract Audit Agency (DACC) compliant. If so, they’ll understand and abide by the requirements of the 2 CFR Part 200 - Uniform Guidance that all federal grants have to abide by when it comes to reporting. They’ll be able to help you enact a system for effort reporting, a requirement of federal grants which entails tracking how many hours each person has put towards a project and how much they’ve been paid. Quickbooks doesn’t usually work for this, so find a CPA who understands these specific requirements, and keep your normal bookkeeping processes separate from this reporting.

2. Separate your finances

Keep your grant funding in a separate bank account from any funding you’ve received from other sources, such as venture capital or customer revenue. It’s fast and straightforward to set up a new account, but will save you a lot of time and stress when it comes to reporting. You’ll be able to see at a glance what you’ve spent the money on, rather than trying to untangle all of your company-wide finances months or years down the line - it’ll be your saving grace if you ever get audited. To simplify things even more, create separate accounts for each award if you end up winning multiple grants.

3. Get a lawyer who understands federal contracts

To make sure you know what you’re getting into and your business is fully protected, find a lawyer who knows their way around federal contracts. Most solicitations will have some of the award terms listed at the bottom of their guidance, so ask your attorney to take a look at the language and ensure it doesn’t raise any red flags, especially where your IP is concerned. Do this before you apply, because when you submit your application, you’re essentially agreeing that you accept these non-negotiable terms.

When you can’t afford to hire an expert

If you lack the funds to hire a consultant for application assistance but remain interested in pursuing grants, your first port of call should be Grants.gov. Here, every federal funding opportunity is listed, and by creating an account and customized filters, you can receive email notifications tailored to your preferences.

While certain grant programs, such as the Small Business Innovative Research program (SBIR), offer free assistance with writing your application, it’s still your responsibility to find the solicitation and ensure you’re eligible. If you do decide to take advantage of these free services, be aware that the quality can vary widely.

Emelie Lucas is the Director of Grants Management for Climate Finance Solutions.  Emily is a Certified Research Administrator (CRA) holding a Master's of Science in Research Administration and Compliance from City University of New York, boasts an impressive track record. With over a decade of expertise in grant management within the realm of public higher education, she has adeptly overseen more than 700 grant submissions, successfully securing a remarkable total of over $600 million in funding from federal, foundation, and industry sources. Ms. Lucas's proficiency spans pre- and post-award grant processes, positioning her as a valuable asset in the grants domain.

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