Ask the Expert: Putting Together Successful Proposals for Funding

Joe Marks, PhD, is the Executive Director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Machine Learning and Health. In this article, he discusses what prospective entrepreneurs should take into consideration in order to have the best chances at securing funding from an investor.

Joe Marks bio photoTo kick things off, where’s the best place to start when putting together a proposal?

When I sit down with researchers and entrepreneurs, I always make sure they can tell me the goals. What do you want to achieve? What does the funder want to achieve? By knowing these two things, you can better position yourself to start off on the right foot. Some funders might be looking for scientific rigor while others might just be looking for a clear line of sight to commercialization. When you know your goals and your potential funder’s goals, you can then work to connect the two dots.


Is there an early mistake that you see researchers and entrepreneurs constantly making?

I work at a university, so don’t be surprised by my answer… it’s people not doing their homework. At the Center for Machine Learning and Health, we work primarily within two domains – academic and commercial – and it never fails to amaze me how little these worlds know about one another. By not doing your research ahead of time, researchers can work on a commercial solution that has been already on the market for 3 years. Conversely, I’ve seen startups try to create solutions that were solved in the academic world over 20 years ago! There’s a deep ignorance that can form when you want to be at the forefront of your field, and if you don’t do your homework you can be easily embarrassed.


Is there a simple way to make sure that what you’re proposing is original?

Use your resources. At the Center we have a lot of different team members, each with different backgrounds. Our researchers and entrepreneurs can share what we’ve seen in the past and what you might want to look closer at. Another way to ensure that your idea is original is to attend conferences and network. Some industries, like healthcare, have niche conferences on certain topics where you can surround yourself with experts that have hundreds of years of combined entrepreneurial experience. It’s a lot of work, but making sure you’re in constant contact with other people engaged in your subject area is crucial.


So, reinventing the wheel is the number one thing you want to avoid, but what about when you’ve done your research… what other things can help ensure success?

I see a lot of people skip things in their proposals that they’re not interested in – either because they don’t have the business or clinical expertise to answer the question or because they assume that the reviewer will know the answer. Unfortunately, the funders can’t infer your answers and it will hurt you in the long run.


How do you make an investor truly believe in your plan?

Again, it all depends on the investor. Some investors are really interested in KPIs and metrics. If they see a solution that is guaranteed to produce results, that can be as far as they look. Other investors might put more emphasis on the team rather than the idea, and it’s important in these cases to make sure that your team show off your strengths.


Is there such thing as a perfect proposal?

It’s rare that a proposal is ever perfect. But that’s what’s unique about the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance. We’re here to help. If you need clinical input, we can help connect you with experts at UPMC. If you don’t have all the business skills, we can put you in contact with more business-oriented people. We’re here to transform rough ideas and early-stage teams into the best they can be. Don’t feel like you need to have an answer to everything. Do your research. Network with your peers. And then keep taking the next step. If you’re an entrepreneur interested in changing things for the better, then you’re already on the right path… just keep going.

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