This documents my journey applying to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Seed Fund for my startup, LooseLeaf.

This is a Live Document. I’ll be updating it while I go through the NSF Seed Fund process.

Table of Contents

What is NSF Seed Fund

The NSF Seed Fund is a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) initiative which provides seed funding for startups that work on innovations with promise of commercial and societal impact. NSF Seed Fund accepts proposals in almost any area of science and technology. NSF Seed Fund is a grant so they take no equity in your company.

As discussed in this article, the NSF Seed Fund offers an effective way for small companies to de-risk technologies that are often too early for venture or even angel investing.

Criteria for Success

There are three criteria for a successful applicant:

  1. Intellectual Merit - the potential to advance knowledge. Metrics for this criterion include the extent in which the proposed activities explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts.
  2. Broader Impacts - the potential to benefit society. Metrics include the means to assess desired societal impact.
  3. Commercial Impact, which encompasses the potential to lead to significant outcomes in the commercial market. Metrics for this criterion include a compelling potential business model, whether the company possessing a significant and durable competitive advantage over competitors based on technical innovation, and whether there exists a significant market opportunity that could be addressed by the proposed product.

For every criterion, the team’s qualification would be factored into the assessment to justify the investment. A successful team has the expertise, structure, experience, and resources available in-house or through collaboration to carry out the proposed activities and achieve a successful outcome.

One tip to improve your chances of success for the NSF Seed Fund is to make sure you meet all the prerequisites for applying. This includes getting a business license, a DUNS number, register with the government System for Award Management (SAM). Once you’ve completed the pre-requisites, you are ready to register with the agency that you think might fund your technology or company. For LooseLeaf, this would be either:

See current Phase I awardees to get a flavor of what kind of startups win NSF Seed Fund.


Read the SBIR solicitation and the STTR solicitation includes everything you need to know about applying for funding.

Per the SBIR Solicitation, successful applicants to the Phase I seed fund will receive a grant up to $225K over a period of 6 to 12 months.


  • 5PM on Thursday, June 14, 2018 is the deadline for the full application.
  • 1-3 months after the deadline, panel and merit review will be performed.
  • 4-6 months after the deadline, you’ll be Notified on whether your proposal is accepted or declined.
  • 5-6 months after the deadline, you’ll receive funding of up to $225K if your proposal is accepted.


  1. Incorporate your startup as a LLC, C-Corp, or S-Corp. I used LegalZoom to incorporate LooseLeaf as a single-entity LLC.
  2. Once you obtain documentation to verify your company’s existence, you can obtain a DUNS number. I called the number listed on the Dun & Bradstreet’s website to have them email me a link to submit copies of the business documentation. I submitted a Certificate of Organization and EIN Confirmation and Application.
  3. You have to wait a few days for the DUNS number to get entered into the system. Once that happens, you can start your SAM registration. SAM registration takes up to 3 weeks.
  4. Register your company with the SBIR. See
  5. Register your company with NSF in (Online Grant Management for the NSF Community). Only after registering with can you login to FastLane and begin preparing your proposal.
  6. Once your SAM registration and registration are activated, you can begin entering your proposal in FastLane. It is recommended you explore FastLane before submitting your application.

SAM Registration

The System for Award Management (SAM) is the primary registrant database for entities to do business with the U.S. Government. This SAM registration must be maintained with current information at all times during which the organization has an active award or a proposal under consideration by NSF. See the step-by-step for how I completed the SAM Application for LooseLeaf.

SBIR Company Registration

Receipt of a Small Business Concern identification number (SBC ID) is required prior to submission of the proposal. SBA maintains and manages a Company Registry for SBIR/STTR applicants at to track ownership and affiliation requirements. All SBCs must report and/or update ownership information to SBA prior to each SBIR/STTR application submission or if any information changes prior to award. Please see the SBA registration documentation section of the Proposal Submission Instructions. Registration

You need to have an active SAM registration before you can begin registering your company with NSF in (Online Grant Management for the NSF Community). Only after registering with can you login to FastLane and begin preparing your proposal.

Pre-Submittal Feedback (Optional)

Executive Summary

You may submit an Executive Summary of your business idea to NSF and receive feedback from the program director on whether your business meets the program’s intellectual merit and broader/commercial impact criteria. The Executive Summary questionnaire (submitted via a Google Form) asks you to answer the following questions about your business:

1. Briefly describe the company and team:

LooseLeaf is an online marketplace and professional networking platform for aspiring newcomers of the tech and creative industries to try out a career path, acquire relevant work experience, professional connections, and mentorship through completing projects for non-profits, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs.

LooseLeaf is founded by a service member turned software engineer and entrepreneur who has first-hand experience in career change and brings the right skills, insight, and determination to build the best online incubator for budding developers, designers, and content creators.

2. Describe the market opportunity, value proposition, and customers (1-2 paragraphs or up to 500 words):

There is a long-held belief that college degrees and internships are necessary pre-requisites for developing marketable skills and obtaining relevant work experience.

We are in a college bubble that’s about to burst. With $1.5 trillion student debt and no real guarantee of landing a job after college, there has been a steady rise in industries designed to disrupt the education to career pipeline, varying from massive open online courses, coding bootcamps, and career accelerators, and websites designed to prepare people for algorithm interviews.

MOOCs are effective with offering structure and clear guidance to a career changer’s learning objectives to close knowledge and skills gaps. In an an age of information overload, this is especially important. However, MOOCs fall short of offering the same benefits which universities and internships provide, in particular, the ability to advance through a career development process with peers, networking with professionals, alumni and recruiters, working on real projects to try out a career path, and a clear path to employment. You have classmates in MOOCs, but it’s more of a crowd than a community. Building skills through MOOCs could be an isolating experience.

Bootcamps and career accelerators address the problems with MOOCs by having a dedicated staff help the career changers advance through an intensive learning and project-based program with peers designed to fast-track them to landing a job. But, Bootcamps lasts 14 weeks, costs up to $21,000, and paints an unrealistic picture of job placement rate after graduation for someone who has no previous experience in programming. The number of coding bootcamp grads has grown 10x since the first bootcamps launched in 2012. Today, bootcamp grads have flood the market, making it hard for individual graduates to stand out.

LooseLeaf is a project-based professional networking platform for aspiring newcomers of the tech and creative industries to improve their skills and build an online portfolio by working on projects for non-profits, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs. LooseLeaf serves a two-sided market: (1) the newcomers who look for career building opportunities by volunteering their time in exchange for feedback and validation of their abilities and (2) the non-profits, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs looking for a way to de-risk and minimize cost for their operations. By addressing all of the necessary components for career building and adding the benefits of being free to use and asynchronous, LooseLeaf is instrumental for people who are in the midst of changing careers, college students who are establishing new careers, and high school students who are exploring career tracks.

3. Describe the technology/innovation (1-2 paragraphs or up to 500 words)

The major challenges of self-study for a career change include the lack of insight on what skills to build, what to work on to build these skills, and how the skill building activity will improve chance of employment in a chosen career track. LooseLeaf’s innovation specifically addresses these challenges by integrating data from job boards and profile of companies who are posting to these job boards into LooseLeaf’s information system to inform newcomers on how to work on each project to maximize their return-on-investment with regard to acquiring in-demand skills and relevant work experience. Preliminary research on recruiting and hiring trends revealed that companies now source prospective employees through professional networking sites like LinkedIn which utilize algorithms that scan candidates’ resumes and online profiles for knowledge and experience keywords that match a job description. These algorithms then recommend those candidates to recruiters who further assess the candidates’ viability through reviewing their portfolio and work experience for work samples and evidence of their abilities. LooseLeaf’s innovation helps career-changers laser focus their self-study effort to target the specific in-demand skills, relevant experience, and knowledge areas by completing projects, which are collected in a portfolio that impresses recruiters.

Another challenge of self-study is the ability to stay motivated and focused to effectively and efficiently filter through and utilize the massive collection of free learning resources online. LooseLeaf’s second innovation is the integration of social networking features to create a peer mentorship system, in which newcomers can (1) observe what someone else at their experience level would do to complete a project (e.g., creating a landing page for a non-profit or designing a logo for a startup founder) and (2) provide encouragement and feedback to each other during the project completion process. The peer mentorship system groups newcomers of similar skill levels, aspirations, and interest areas, and shared projects to create social networks. When newcomers browse open projects in areas of their interest, they can add the projects they would like to complete to their todo-list and watch-list. They can document their efforts in how they are completing these projects, which sends notifications to other newcomers in their network.

4. Describe the technical challenges to overcome (1-2 paragraphs or up to 500 words)

Job posting data from various job boards needs to be imported and organized into LooseLeaf’s database systems. Based on initial research, a few job boards provide an API for third party developers to query the jobs database, many do not offer that service. As such, methods need to be investigated or developed to effectively fetch the latest data from various job boards to maintain in LooseLeaf’s information system that powers the insight provided to newcomers on the return-on-investment in working on a project.

Another technical challenge is the development of an interface for project creators to monitor activities of the project contributors, answer questions about the project goals, and provide feedback to the project submissions after the deadline is reached. Because there is no limit to how many people can work on each project, traditional methods to hand-off a project like emailing a deliverable may be infeasible and undesirable for the project creators. Also, it is desirable to have the project deliverable publicly available online since portfolio building is a goal and a feature of LooseLeaf. Therefore, support for file sharing and a file hosting strategy would have to be developed.

5. Describe the competition (1-2 paragraphs or up to 500 words)

People looking for a career change to the tech and creative industries use online courses that come with video lectures and projects to practice what they learned. Coursera and Skillshare are two platforms for online learning. Coursera was developed to deliver university courses to the masses and Skillshare offer classes taught by experts and working professionals on emerging trends and topics. While both options cater to remote learners (the same demographics targeted by LooseLeaf), these online learning platforms are focused on delivering instructions for building knowledge, sometimes behind a paywall as the case of Skillshare, while LooseLeaf is focused on delivering opportunities to obtain relevant work experience for free. Additionally, online courses are designed to enrich the learners, not addressing the immediate concern of a career-changer to build demonstrable skills and an online portfolio that showcases their abilities and develop a professional network of other career-changers and project creators (non-profits, entrepreneurs) who can vouch for their abilities.

Coding and design bootcamps, such as General Assembly, Hack Reactor, Hackbright Academy, and Flatiron School specially target career-changers who are pivoting to careers in the tech and creative industries. Bootcamps last an average of 14 weeks, cost up to $21,000, and offer intensive learning and project-based programs with a dedicated staff designed to make students viable candidates to employers in the tech industry. In addition to developing fundamental knowledge and a portfolio, students also learn interview skills and are exposed to professional networking opportunities. LooseLeaf distinguishes itself from bootcamps by offering the same portfolio building opportunities, a peer support group, and professional network building opportunities for no cost to the career-changer.

Side Note:

  • Being a good passive candidate - having a strong resume and portfolio of relevant work to impress career platform’s matching algorithms and recruiters will improve your chance of getting invited to job interviews.
  • Bootcamps also attract entrepreneurs who lack the skills and knowledge to implement their startup ideas.

6. In which topic area does the technology best fit?

EA (Education Technologies and Application, specifically EA7 (Education & Training for the Emerging Fourth Sector Eco-system) best describes LooseLeaf. LooseLeaf’s model of professional development is a substitute for the unsustainable cycle of higher education and debt. LooseLeaf’s platform supports non-profits and entrepreneurs, who are focused on providing social good and innovation to nob-profits, in bringing their ideas to market.

My Choices are:

Feedback from the Program Director

Based on the info provided, I have the following comments:

  1. I encourage you to apply.
  2. How broad and deep is the problem that you are trying to solve?
  3. Please provide step by step explanation of how the whole process would work.
  4. Your business model is interesting but it is not clear who will pay you so that your company is financially viable?

Make sure you have clearly described success criteria to decide whether Phase I goals are achieved or not. Those goals must support the required commercialization goals.

Proposal Preparation


How Phase I Goals are met:

  • Demonstrate technical and broader/commercial impact to proceed to a Phase II
  • Assess commercial feasibility of the proposed innovation
  • Has the potential to disrupt the targeted market segment
  • Has a sustainable business model that’s financially viable.
  • Offering potential for societal benefit through commercialization under a sustainable business model.

Acceptable objectives

  • Creation of a new product/innovation with some technical challenges to overcome that has the potential to disrupt the targeted market segment and offer societal benefit through commercialization under a sustainable business model.
  • Must describe the research effort needed to establish the feasibility of the proposed scientific or technical innovation.
  • The aim of a Phase I project should be to demonstrate technical feasibility of the proposed innovation and thereby bring the innovation closer to commercialization.

Unacceptable Objectives:

  • Efforts directed toward systems studies
  • Market research
  • Commercial development of existing products or proven concepts
  • Straightforward engineering design for packaging
  • Laboratory evaluations not associated with the research and development process
  • Incremental product or process improvements
  • Evolutionary optimization of existing products
  • Evolutionary modifications to broaden the scope of an existing product or application.

Proposal - Required Documents

Documents should be written in the third person and in Arial size 12 font. See Fastlane Guide

1. Cover Sheet and Certification


  • Complete topic and subtopic fields should be included on the cover sheet. Designate one, and only one, topic and subtopic.
  • If a proposer fails to disclose on the proposal cover sheet whether another Federal Agency has received this proposal (or an equivalent or overlapping proposal), the proposer could be liable for administrative, civil or criminal sanctions.
  • NOTE: To save your data, be sure to click the “OK” button at the bottom of the screen prior to navigating away from the Cover Sheet. If you receive any error messages when you click “OK”, you must clear all errors and re-click “OK” to save the data.

LooseLeaf’s Topic and Subtopic: EA (Education Technologies and Application, specifically EA7 (Education & Training for the Emerging Fourth Sector Eco-system EA7)

2. Project Summary (1 page max)


  • The Project Summary is completed in FastLane by entering information into the three text boxes in the Project Summary module.
  • Box 1: Overview, Key Words, and Subtopic Name: Describe the potential outcome(s) of the proposed activity in terms of a product, process, or service. Provide a list of key words or phrases that identify the areas of technical expertise to be invoked in reviewing the proposal; and the areas of application that are the initial target of the technology. Provide the subtopic name.
  • Box 2: Intellectual Merit: This section MUST begin with “This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project”. Address the intellectual merits of the proposed activity. Do not include proprietary information in the summary. Briefly describe the technical hurdle(s) that will be addressed by the proposed R&D (which should be crucial to successful commercialization of the innovation), the goals of the proposed R&D, and a high-level summary of the plan to reach those goals.
  • Box 3: Broader/Commercial Impact: In this field, discuss the expected outcomes in terms of how the proposed project will bring the innovation closer to commercialization under a sustainable business model. In this box, also describe the potential commercial and market impacts that such a commercialization effort would have, if successful. As appropriate, also discuss potential broader societal impacts of the innovation (e.g. educational, environmental, scientific, societal, or other impacts on the nation and the world).

Box 1: Overview, Key Words, and Subtopic Name:

LooseLeaf’s Topic and Subtopic: EA (Education Technologies and Application, specifically EA7 (Education & Training for the Emerging Fourth Sector Eco-system EA7)

Box 2: Intellectual Merit:

This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project …The proposed research and development addresses the following technical hurdles: …Overcoming technical hurdles means providing a product for the customers, which brings it closer to commercialization. Creation of an innovative platform that is the integrates career training, freelancing, and job candidate sourcing. This innovation has the potential to disrupt the targeted market segment and offer societal benefit through commercialization under a sustainable business model.

Word dump:

  • Allow people to become an active shaper of their career development. Provide up-to-date occupational information to inform someone’s approach to a project. Someone’s activities on the platform allows them to be an active shaper of their professional development and career trajectory.
  • Coding bootcamp and short-term education providers have emerged to provide the so-called “last-mile training” necessary to connect new college graduates with insufficient skills and relevant work experience to employers who are unwilling to provide the necessary training. This trend is especially prominent in programming jobs.

Box 3: Broader/Commercial Impact:

  • Business model: Who will pay? Project creators will pay on a per-project basis for the ability to advertise their projects to top talents on LooseLeaf to work on the projects and project management tool. Recruiters will pay also to run their project-based technical interviews. Additional revenue streams from supplemental products and tools for professional developments, such as MOOCs, Manning books, coding bootcamps, co-working space.
  • Broader societal impact for the innovation: Educational and societal. Professional development and opportunities to acquire relevant work experience.

3. Project description (15 pages max)

The project description is the core of the proposal document, where you convince the SBIR Program Director and the expert reviewers that your proposed R&D project meets the NSF’s criteria for intellectual merit and broader/commercial impact. Present evidence that:

  • The proposed technology is innovative
  • Development of it entails high technical risk
  • You have a credible plan to establish technical feasibility during Phase I
  • The company and the project team have the necessary expertise, resources, and support to carry out the project
  • The company and the project team have the necessary expertise, resources, and support to carry out the project, and that they are committed to building a viable business around the product/service being developed
  • Compelling case that the project objectives will significantly advance the readiness of the technology and strengthen and validate its commercial position

Elevator Pitch (1 page max)


  1. The Customer. Describe the expected customer for the innovation. What customer needs or market pain points are you addressing?
  2. The Value Proposition. What are the benefits to the customer of your proposed innovation? What is the key differentiator of your company or technology? What is the potential societal value of your innovation?
  3. The Innovation: Succinctly describe your innovation. This section can contain proprietary information that could not be discussed in the Project Summary. What aspects are original, unusual, novel, disruptive, or transformative compared to the current state of the art?

The Commercial Opportunity (2-4 pages)


  1. Is there a broader societal need you are trying to address with this commercial opportunity? Please describe.
  2. Describe the market and addressable market for the innovation. Discuss the business economics and market drivers in the target industry.
  3. How has the market opportunity been validated? Describe your customers and your basic business model.
  4. Describe the competition. How do you expect the competitive landscape may change by the time your product/service enters the market?
  5. What are the key risks in bringing your innovation to market?
  6. Describe your commercialization approach. Discuss the potential economic benefits associated with your innovation, and provide estimates of the revenue potential, detailing your underlying assumptions.
  7. Describe the resources you expect will be needed to implement your commercialization approach.
  8. Describe your plan and expected timeline to secure these resources.

The Innovation (1-3 pages)

  1. Briefly describe the innovation. At what stage of technical development is the innovation? (A more detailed description can be provided in the Technical Discussion and R&D Plan, as described below).
  2. Describe the key technical challenges and risks in bringing the innovation to market. Which of these will be your focus in the proposed Phase I project?
  3. Describe the status of the intellectual property associated with this project and how you plan to protect it.
  4. NSF Lineage: Does your project have roots in non-SBIR/STTR NSF funding, either to the company or other organizations/institutions? If possible, please list the NSF award number(s) and division(s).

The Company/Team (1-3 pages)

  1. Describe the company founders or key participants in this proposed project. What level of effort will these persons devote to the proposed Phase I activities? How does the background and experience of the team enhance the credibility of the effort; have they previously taken similar products/services to market?
  2. Describe your vision for the company and the company’s expected impact over the next five years.
  3. If the company has existing operations, describe how the proposed effort would fit into these activities. Describe the revenue history, if any, for the past three years. Include government funding and private investment in this discussion.
  4. Will you have consultants or subawardees working on this project? If so, what is their expertise, affiliation, and contribution to the project?

Technical Discussion and R&D Plan (5 pages min, 7 pages max)

  1. Describe the innovation in sufficient technical depth for a knowledgeable reviewer to understand why it is innovative and how it can provide benefits in the target applications. Supplement this description with any necessary background information.
  2. Describe the key objectives to be accomplished during the Phase I research, including the questions that must be answered to determine the technical AND commercial feasibility of the proposed concept.
  3. Describe the critical technical milestones that must be met to get the product or service to market.
  4. Present an R&D plan, with timeline. What are the objectives, and what experiments, computations, etc. are planned to reach those objectives?

4. References Cited

Instruction: References Cited. Provide a comprehensive listing of relevant references, including patent numbers and other relevant intellectual property citations. A list of References Cited must be uploaded into the system. If there are no references cited in the proposal, please indicate this by putting the statement “No References Cited” into this module.

5. Biographical Sketches


  • Provide a resume for the Principal Investigator (PI) and senior personnel (individuals with critical expertise who will be working on the project and are employed at the proposing company or at a subaward institution).
  • Information regarding consultants should also be provided in this format but instead uploaded as part of the preliminary Budget Justification.
  • Biographical sketches should not exceed two pages per person.
  • Do not include personal information such as home address in biographical sketches. Provide information in the following sections: (I) Education: Institution, Location, Major/Concentration, Degree, and Year. (II) Relevant Experience: Include technical and/or commercial experience. List in reverse chronological order beginning with the current position. (III) Products: Includes patents, publications, etc. Up to 5 may be listed that are related to the proposed work and up to 5 that are significant but not related to the proposed work.
  • You are not required to use the NSF Biographical Sketch template.

6. Budget and Subaward Budgets

  • Submit budget line items. Each budget line item must properly justified on the Budget Justification page and reflect the need of the proposed R&D project.
  • Do not submit a budget exceeding $225,000.
  • DO NOT include any funds on Lines E2, F or G2 of the Budget. These are not allowable costs under a Phase I proposal.
  • NOTE: FastLane does not accept symbols or commas in the budget lines.

7. Budget Justification

  • The Budget Justification is uploaded in the Budget Module of FastLane.
  • Provide details for each non-zero line item of the budget, including a description and cost estimates. Identify each line item by its letter and number (e.g., G.5 - Subawards). Each non-zero line item should be described in the Budget Justification, but several sections also require more specific information as detailed below.
  • Detailed documentation of all budget line items is required and MUST be documented in detail on the Budget Justification page

Current and Pending Support

Collaborators and Other Affiliations

Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources

Supplementary Documents

Value Proposition

How broad and deep is the problem that you’re trying to solve?


Provide Step by step explanation of how the whole process would work.

Business Model

How is business financially viable?

Who will pay?

What is the success criteria for LooseLeaf to assess whether Phase I goals are achieved or not? These goals must support the required commercialization goals.

Proposal Submission

  • DO NOT upload any documents to the “ADDITIONAL Single Copy Documents” subsection under the “Single Copy Documents’ section in FastLane.
  • DO NOT upload documents to the Supplementary Documents except those described in Supplementary Documents.