How to write more successful grants

And, no, it may not always be just a matter of the quality of your research.  It may be a case of hanging in during the selection competition for a few rounds more than your competitors.  Because it’s not always about good research – sometimes it’s about good research and better research.  And if the research is of equivalent quality then the competition comes down to what happens next with your research.

what-really-goes-on-a-review-panelEoin O’ Sullivan shared ideas for ways to survive the attrition within the process by which a review panel chooses which grants get funded. (And, by the way, Eoin encouraged all academics to get some experience of review panels – it profoundly changes one’s approach to writing!).  (If you want to read a description of the whole process and an alternative view of the scoring sheets – then go to:

review-panel-categoriesSo what is this attrition process?  When the reviewers assemble they can typically agree on a few brilliant grants that ‘must’ be funded, and a larger pile of grants which aren’t good enough and so are quickly rejected.  But the biggest pile is the ‘maybe fund pile’.  And so the review continues – but now looking for reasons to fund or, more dangerously and more easily, reasons to reject.  And so slowly the reject pile increases.  And this continues until there are enough grants to consume the available budget.  So, towards the end it will be the last surviving grants in the ‘maybe fund’ category which will succeed.

So the question then becomes “how to keep out of the ‘rejected’ pile all the way to the end?”  And the answer is “don’t provide reasons for reviewers to put your proposal in the bin”.

detailsSo don’t put your reviewer to sleep, or irritate them.  Provide enough detail so they can assess what you intend to do – and make the detail relevant and meaningful.

And unless you have the financial wealth to fund your own election research, don’t just provide the banal assurances that are equivalent to asking voters reviewers to “just trust me”.   The reviewers may not be expert in your field (in fact it’s likely that there will be generalists reviewing your proposal) so you will have to explain clearly and the ability to provide excellent and cogent explanations of complex concepts is a mark of the deeply competent.  (Exemplified by Richard Feynman)

Go through and check your proposal document thoroughly – does every sentence add value?

forecastYou can significantly improve your proposal’s chance of staying out of the ‘reject’ pile by crafting a compelling ‘Pathways to Impact’ section.  But note the title – it’s not ‘magnitude of impact’ so you don’t have to find the biggest possible number (by creative extrapolation).  But you should identify the ‘pathway’.  Who is next in the chain – who will pick up your work and do something valuable with it?  Why will they care and why is your work an important step along the pathway?

beneficiariesThink also about the barriers to success and the tipping points which could translate stagnation to success.  Is there anything that you can do to address these and if so how?  Show how you can help and your whole proposal gains credibility and value.  Can you perhaps involve some of the beneficiaries and get them to help you – and tell the reviewers how this will work. Think broadly about who might gain value from your work – in both the private and public sectors.

It is worth being conscious of the trajectory of sectors or the government’s stance on the sector that might use your work.  Are you aligned with a national strategy?  Perhaps an industry association can give you a direction.  Perhaps you can find a sectoral roadmap that shows you where you can hook into it. And this alignment means your research is more likely to be adopted – which means the pathway will be a little less rocky.

And if you want to go a step further, then why not actually conduct a roadmapping session to work with your beneficiaries to map out how your research will translate into their plans.  To see how others have done this see:

In fast-moving fields of science maybe the world will change – together with the interests and priorities of your beneficiaries.  So can you manage a process of continuous (or regular) engagement so that you stay close to those who have an interest in your success?  And, if so, tell the reviewers how you’ll achieve this. [insert compelling here]

Check out the guidance from RCUK:

partnersTime consuming and often tricky to navigate – so why would you want to form partnerships with industrial companies?

But the key to success, both in the grant competition and in the real partnership, is specificity.  What, exactly, do the industrial partners want?  How, exactly, will they contribute to its creation?  And then, exactly, what will they do with the results.  If you can define this then you have a compelling story and excellent evidence to underpin your assertion that research is so valuable that it has to be supported….  Or at least that your proposal should not go in the reject pile just yet!


For more ideas and insights visit Eoin’s site: – which includes guidance and checklists and links to yet further resources:

Grant-writing skills

Two excellent workshops next month for people wanting to develop their grant-writing skills.  On 4th  October Eoin O’ Sullivan will provide a one-hour quick overview of how to write a successful research proposal.   If you’re interested then please contact Holly Shaw ( to reserve a place.   If you can’t make it to the talk then seek out a copy of his book “The Grant Writer’s Handbook”.

Then on 31st October Philip Guildford will focus in on a single simple technique for marshalling your arguments to write and present a compelling proposal. To sign up for that talk please contact Judith Collier (


The two are complementary and bookend the month nicely.  Both will be in the Engineering Department at lunchtime.  See you there.

Making more from your research – Impact & value

Why would you want to commercialise your research, what are your options, and how might Cambridge Enterprise help?Julian_team_new1

Julian Peck from Cambridge Enterprise addressed each of these questions this week at a Collaboration Skills Initiative seminar attended by people from across Cambridge University’s Schools of Technology, Physical Sciences, and Medicine.

Why1There are many reasons to commercialize research – and the mix is usually a personal decision.  Often money is the least important.  In some cases it’s the best way to disseminate results, other times it serves to fund the next round of research, increasingly it is part of the REF and of building credibility with the Research Councils. And also increasingly, for early career researchers it builds a demonstration of your ability to conduct research which can attract external funding, collaboration and support.


Cambridge Enterprise (CE) exists to

  1. make the world a better place by creating a legacy of products, services and advice that benefit society, the UK economy, and the University, and
  2. ensure that society and the economy benefit from commercialisation. You’ll note that Cambridge Enterprise does not exist to make money.


Julian outlined four ways to disseminate and build on research

  • Collaborations with industry – here there are many sources of funding for “translational research”, that bit of work needed to get work from, say, the result of a PhD to the point where a company would like to support further development. CE is able to direct you to relevant sources.
  • Consultancy work – you can provide expert advice based on your knowledge, skills and experience. CE is able to help with contracting (including pricing your work), with admin, invoicing and follow-up and you also get the benefits of a professional indemnity insurance policy.
  • License to a company – you may choose to provide a package of intellectual property that a company can build on, develop and exploit in exchange for royalty fees. CE can help here with defining the intellectual property that is to be licensed, negotiating the deal and managing the license through its life
  • Form a new company – you could create a new entity to take your research to market may be the exciting one, but may not necessarily be the best way to go. CE can help you with building the company, with finding mentoring and advice and, importantly with seed funding

The important thing to remember is that the decision is yours – you can work with CE or choose another route.

In either case CE is able to offer some vital help, beginning with the task of transforming an opportunity from “untransactable to transactable”.  How do you go from an idea and a concept to a package which you can define, bound and trade with a company?  This is where Cambridge Enterprise can really add value in the early stages.

With this in place then you can explore your options now with a much better idea of the propositions that you can create and their likely value.

As you put deals together, CE can help you to structure the deal so that your interests and those of your industrial partner, customer or funder are well-aligned.  You need to think about this right at the beginning and also to think about the long-term as well as the short-term.  Then there’s the tedious but critical “legal stuff” to wade through – and CE is experienced in this as well.

One key area is Intellectual Property.  Whether you work through CE or not, they are prepared to help you with an IP rights review.  Do you know who may have some rights to your work?  Your funder?  Collaborators?  So CE will help to build a clear picture of the starting point so you can proceed from a robust foundation.

Then what should be your IP strategy?  What regions, what industries?  One patent or a portfolio?  Structured how?  And later the task of managing the portfolio, monitoring the licenses and the income streams and managing their distribution.

For those who wish to set up a company then maybe CE could be an investor.  They have a seed fund which, as a result of recent exits, is of the order of £12M.  There is also Cambridge Enterprise Venture Partners (, a network of angels and other investors bringing potentially £3 billion in funding.  And CE can help point you at mentors and, potentially, candidates for your management team.

And of course there is the signposting to all the other resources. Cambridge is a wonderful environment for commercialising your research and this website ( you at a wide variety of resources and sources of help.

FortuneThere’s no one right way to commercialise your research and you might choose a portfolio approach combining translational research, maybe a bit of consultancy, perhaps associated with licensing your technology or creating a company.  Whichever route you choose, Cambridge Enterprise is happy to help and to point you towards the many resources available around Cambridge.

If you would like get in touch directly, Julian can be contacted at

Google’s Engagement With Universities – 2.30pm Thursday 14th April In LR6

David Harper & Michel Benard, EMEA University Relations, Google

In this talk, David and Michael will cover Google’s mission, products and approach to engineering and research. Then, through a walkthrough of Google’s new external research site (, they will describe the various ways in which Google engages with universities, and with academics in particular.  In the final part of the talk, they will compare the two main ways that Google funds research, namely by gift and by contract, introduce the Master Sponsored Research Agreement, and describe how this simplifies setting up contract research projects.
Afterwards, there will be a Q&A session.
(Thanks to Helen Francis for the information)

Managing open data with an industrial research partner

With funders trying to ensure maximum value-for money they are now demanding that research data be made widely available.  This can be good for researchers and for research in general – but what does it mean for working with industry and are there some principles and practices to make it easier?

Dan Crane, Research Support Librarian in the Engineering Department, led a seminar last week to discuss the context of open data, to describe some principles for working effectively and signposted many resources.  There was also an interesting discussion about the implications for working with industrial partners.

Open Access is being driven by funders (including the Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust) as a condition of their funding and, importantly, will be a condition for publications to be submitted for the next REF.  The funders seek greater use, leverage and impact of the work they have supported and to minimise duplication of effort.  Open access has a number of practical benefits for the researcher, including potentially greater exposure and citation.  Managed well, open data will potentially also allow a rich seam of research associated with the data itself.

To get an overview of the area there is a very useful site to guide you through the issues ( and to ensure that your publication is eligible for the REF, by helping you comply with funders’ requirements. It includes advice and guidance about your copyright options (, support for liaison with publishers and the ways you can managing publications and open access.  Another valuable source of advice is the library itself; contact them on

RDM2It’s not only about the final publications but also about the management of the data from your research.  The first port of call should be the Research Data Management site at  There is a summary of, and links to the funders’ policies ( of which EPSRC’s is the most stringent.  There is a specific page that advises how to comply with their needs ( Note also that the EPSRC is also promising to follow up and check for compliance with its policies.

In essence, the requirement is that all publications should have a statement describing how to access the underlying data or a statement explaining why access to the data has been restricted.  The materials must be available for ten years and this is done most conveniently via long-term repositories which maintain Digital Object Identifiers.  Cambridge University’s repository (  is one such.

There are several accepted reasons why data may be restricted including, for example, personal data; data that is sensitive, for example that might influence national security; if there are intellectual property or commercial confidentiality considerations; or if it is not cost-effective to store all the data, perhaps because of its volume.  In instances where volume is an issue then a subset can be usefully stored.  The metadata which describes the data and any restrictions should be in the publications or with the data.  Note that the EPSRC regards the researcher themselves as the person best-placed to decide on the data to be made available or to describe the reasons why it cannot be released.

So all this leads to the practice of disciplined Research Data Management as

  • preparation for sharing and preserving data as a research outcome, and
  • underpinning working as efficiently as possible during the research process

The key to this is to address some important preliminary questions before you start, including:

  1. What type of data will you generate in your project?
  2. What will be the volume (size) of your data? Will you require financial support to share your data?
  3. File formats
  4. What are your proposed data management strategies?
  5. How will you describe your data?
  6. Secondary use
  7. Methods for data sharing
  8. Timeframes

(Dan provided a briefing document covering these questions – if you’re interested please contact the CUED library or me on )

Then you can go on to create a Management Plan covering topics such as:RDM1

  • Context
  • Data Collection
  • Documentation and Metadata
  • Ethics and Legal Compliance
  • Storage and Backup
  • Selection and Preservation
  • Data Sharing
  • Are any restrictions on data sharing required?
  • Responsibilities and Resources



This is supported by the Digital Curation Centre which offers and on-line template:  It’s best to do this as you put together your plans for research and as part of writing your grant application.  In this way all your thinking is integrated and you will remember to reserve the budget and facilities for data management.


So how does all this change for working with industrial partners?  Actually, it’s all about communication and starting early.

Dan’s advice covered:

  • Communication with an industrial partner to explain funders’ requirements for data sharing, and allowable exemptions, and plans for publishing.
  • Communication with the EPSRC to explain the kind of data used, and the extent to which it might be commercially sensitive.
  • Communication with the industrial partner to understand and negotiate acceptable transfer, storage and sharing.


Then write a Data Management Plan, and make sure all of the team knows its content and why it’s written that way.

You may also need to put in place security measures for data transfer and storage during the work, for example thinking about:

  • Receiving data from partner via secure transfer
  • Storing data on a secure group cluster, but thinking about whether it might also be processed on other computers.
  • Before using, check how secure other computers actually are (and beware of offers for ‘free compute time’!)
  • Is it necessary to use an NDA to collaborate and compute,? How much time will that add to the process of negotiating the relationship and start-up of the work?


And when you’re ready to publish make sure you communicate again with your industrial partner. Are they happy for you to publish? And what about the data you’ve generated and wish to share?  Make sure you keep them up to date throughout the project, telling them immediately if things change or you encounter a problem.

During the seminar there was wide-ranging discussion of the issues associated with working with data, especially with industrial partners.

  • The funders are well aware of the commercial concerns of industrial partners and their requirements for open access and data do allow researchers to manage commercial confidentiality. But it may be necessary to talk this through in detail with the industrial partner because, unless the details are understood and managed, this could be a justifiable source of concern for the industrial collaborator.  Hence the importance of the research data management plan.
  • It was pointed out that a research data management plan might also be a considerable contribution to knowledge management, both in research groups and for some industrial collaborators. So here’s a way to derive an extra benefit from working with Cambridge researchers.
  • Data provenance has been a topic of research in the Computer Labs – how do you track the various transformations and manipulations of the data as it is prepared and analysed. They have developed a tool to track this – OPUS.  See and for more information.
  • This led to a discussion of electronic lab notebooks – see for work in the Chemistry Department. The CUED Library plans to look at these in due course.

Note the potential for added elapsed time as you negotiate your data management plans with your industrial partner

For those interested in following all this up, you can go to the site and sign up for Research Data Management workshops (12/4, 11/5,  14/9)

If you’d like a copy of Dan’s presentation then please contact me on

Advanced Functional Materials Manufacturability Seminar

Pathways to Manufacturing Seminar 2PD

Speaker: Professor Pete Dobson

From fundamental science through scale up to deployment, Professor Pete Dobson’s experience in commercialising advanced functional materials and devices enabled by them has gained him international recognition as a leading advisor for technology and knowledge transfer.

Come hear him speak about the challenges he has faced developing, scaling and industrialising advanced functional material based products during his time in industry (e.g., Philips Research Laboratories) and academia (e.g., Oxford University). He will also explore how products from current and future functional materials research face similar risks.

11:00-12:00, Friday the 18th March

Seminar Room 3, Institute for Manufacturing

To attend please email:

You heard it here first

In a wonderful session last week we heard a series of elevator pitches from researchers at Cambridge covering everything from stem cell preparation and microstructure modelling all the way to new approaches to refrigeration. And, as is always the case in these sessions, you wonder if this could be the first hint of one of the next big things.

The Visiting Professors of Innovation, Sam Beale, Pieter Knook and Rick Mitchell, ( ) provided their critique and coaching – and this blog notes some of the insights that emerged.

Julia Tischler stepped into the difficult role of going first and presented a well-structured JTbusiness proposition for an automated fluidic stem cell culture system. She covered the problem, the proposition, the economics and the business model and ended with a crystal clear request pitched at candidate investors. By describing the size of the market and then focusing down to the particular problem that she proposes to solve she was able to take the audience with her every step of the way. Her presentation covered off almost all the questions an investor might have. This included the uniqueness of the team and its track record as a robust foundation

CKSecond up was Christine Kienl who, with almost no notice, delivered a pitch that described the clear line of logic between the need for high performance materials in extreme systems like jet engines, the need to understand how the manufacturing approachescrystals affect the microstructures that give these materials their remarkable properties, and the advantages of modelling versus extensive testing. And hence the importance of her research and that of her group in creating tools to predict the influence of manufacturing on end product performance.AD

The third presenter, Anaid Diaz, embarked on the challenge of pitching her skills for a new position in search of her ideal job. She neatly brought out her areas of greatest interest and enthusiasm, focusing on three clearly defined areas, and via a few key phrases left clues that she really understood her domain – but without loading us with detail. Her enthusiasm shone through and the audience responded.

512px-Slag_runoff_Republic_SteelIs the taxpayer being asked to fund the right thingLJ – a subsidy of energy costs or pursuing a profound change in the way industry works? With a very topical pitch, Lili Jia described how the team with which she works has brought together technologists and economists to work with researchers, designers, policy-makers and the steel industry supply chain to explore ways of reducing energy costs and moving towards the UK’s carbon emission targets.

ACAnd finally, in a spontaneous pitch almost completely without preparation, Aditya Chauhan opened up the prospect of massive reduction in the ever-increasing amounts of energy going into cooling. His work has looked at ferroelectrics and solid-state cooling (ferroelectric materials) and he painted a picture of immense potential – but some way off.


And as we discussed the pitches and as the VPIs and the audience fed back their suggestions for improvement I found myself wondering when I would next hear about these people and their initiatives and whether I had, indeed, heard it here first.

So what were some of the messages that emerged about the elevator pitch and ways to do it well?

Firstly, introduce yourself. Make sure the audience gets your name (remember that most famous of introductions – “The name is Bond, James Bond”) so they can contact you later. And think about how you want to grab their attention. Perhaps an interesting factoid? Maybe a question – but beware a question that might lead the audience in the wrong direction if they choose the wrong answer.

Beware claiming too much. Even if your work promises wins across a very wide range of applications beware the temptation to claim them all. The audience will engage more with a plausible story about a focused problem and solution. Start there and widen in a later conversation.

As you go through continue to scatter the little hooks that keeps the audience engaged – maybe another surprising fact or insight. And if you’ve structured your pitch to go from the general to the specific then this is easy to do and you can take them with you every step of the way.

Numbers aren’t the only way to impress – try an anecdote that brings your idea to life, maybe something that the audience can relate to. Perhaps use them to describe the problem; to illustrate the progress you’ve made or perhaps to sell your uniqueness.

Think also about how you’ll address the unasked questions of the doubter – why should I believe this? Where’s the evidence? So provide some supporting evidence along the way – not exhaustive but enough to keep the conversation alive.

As you bring your pitch to a close you might want to think about how far you’ve progressed in your research. Are you at an early stage or perhaps you have a prototype that’s available for demonstration? This is important for people who need to know whether they are joining you for a long haul, or whether you’re well along the way. And what about competitors? If this problem is so big or the idea so good then surely there are some competitors or alternative approaches. If you already know about them then you are yet more compelling and credible.

And finally the ask. If you have a specific proposition and a known audience then this can be very targeted. But even if it isn’t the right audience perhaps they can help you anyway. Could you ask for a reference, perhaps to be put in touch with someone who can help you, give you that next step to pursue your goal? And the bigger the risk you’ve taken with your presentation, the more enthusiastic you’ve been and the more you evidently care then the more sympathetic the audience will be and the more likely they are to give you that helping hand. Whatever it might be.

Then?  Practice.  Try variants.  Experiment to see what works.  Then practice some more.



Steel image credit: Alfred T. Palmer, FSA-OWI [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The art of the elevator pitch

Have you noticed how important it is becoming to be able to pitch your ideas (and yourself) in just a few minutes?

So how good is your pitch?

And how good are your pitching and presentation skills?

The Collaboration Skills Initiative is holding a session to allow people to rehearse their elevator pitches and receive advice from the Engineering Department’s Visiting Professors of Innovation, all of whom come from an industrial and venture background. We’ll use the same format that worked so well during the recent ‘Sales for researchers’ course.

Wednesday 20th January

3:30pm for coffee and cakes – followed by the session

Oatley Room – Engineering Department, Trumpington St, Cambridge

If you’d like to come along, either to pitch or to observe, then please contact Holly Shaw ( There are a limited number of slots for pitches so if you want to pitch do please let Holly know soon.

Applying Selling Skills for Researchers

There was, again, excellent feedback from the people who attended Marcel Dissel’s recent course on Selling Skills for Researchers.

“Ah, yes”, say the cynics, “but what happens in practice?”

And so today, Nicky de Batista from CSIC ( and Frank Stajano from the Centre of Excellence in Cypersecurity Research ( described exactly that. Nicky described a project that he pitched to a construction company in Malta and Frank described how he used the skills to pitch for a big EU grant.


Nicky described using each of the models within Marcel’s course, beginning with a surprising opportunity at a family wedding which illustrated the first truth – you need to be able to describe quickly and concisely what you do and explain why it matters. You may have to tailor the message for your audience, but being able to respond quickly and decisively to the question “so what do you do?” may just open up an opportunity. That and going to the right sorts of weddings.

If your audience know your subject then you’d better be ready with the second part of the elevator pitch – your USP. What makes you unique and special? And in Nicky’s case this required him to differentiate himself from consultant engineers.

And then to keep the conversation alive use open ended questions. Asking “so how do you monitor the structural loads in your buildings today?” enabled Nicky to develop the conversation and build the opportunity to apply his structural monitoring research to a new problem.

Finally, you need to be clear what you want – and in Nicky’s case this was an opportunity for a visit to take the conversation to the next step. So reflect for a moment; what might you want? Have you thought about the sorts of things you would ask for?

Nicky got the chance to visit the potential partner and so now it was time for Marcel’s dictum of the five Ps – “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”. Nicky described his preparation, including understanding as much as he could of the industrial partner and the implications of the project they were discussing. And in a precursor to a point that Frank was to make later, Nicky was able to understand the pain that the industrial partner faced – the value and urgency of understanding the structural loads in the building.

During the critical meeting, a CPRone day visit to the site where the partner faced the problem, Nicky was also able to use the CPR model. Importantly, this enabled Nicky and his contact to clarify expectations and goals, which meant that the meeting was effective for them both – and that the meeting was set in the context of how they might build a project together. So now they were well on the way to consultative selling.

ConsultativeAt the very centre of consultative selling is the idea that the solution will be jointly defined and worked up by both parties. And in Nicky’s case, exploring how to actually do the project on-site enabled the industrial partner to see that Nicky’s ideas were credible and applicable and could offer a solution. This is much more powerful than simple assurances of competence – people can see experience at work.

And so finally, Nicky was able to create the formal technical proposal and quotation which he duly submitted. But in this case the proposal was not accepted due to internal debates and issues within the industrial organisation. So then, perhaps a failure? Not at all, in Nicky’s eyes. He’s planted a seed among many influential professionals, he’s demonstrated his capabilities and research area and he’s established his credibility. And, it seems to me, honed his selling skills.

Then Frank Stajano described his experience in winning a big EU grant. In the middle of the process Frank attended Marcel’s course and found it useful – but it needed some serious work and effort to take the lessons from selling and apply it to the situation that Frank found himself in. And Frank emphasised that it is possible to draw out these analogies and so build your skills in selling your research.


Frank’s key messages were “think about it all from the point of view of your audience” and “explain how your research might (eventually) address their pain”. In the case of a grant committee you may be talking about the benefits for the final beneficiaries rather than that specific committee, but the point remains the same.

Frank advocated following the process systematically. Explore the problem area that your research can address and figure out what might be the solution to an important and significant problem. Then track back to see how your research can be part of that solution. Now you have a line of logic that makes your research relevant and valuable to address a real problem – not just research that you would like somebody to pay for. And don’t forget, this work will stand you in good stead – it will help you to win that first grant and then it will enable you to continue to explain why your research matters, so you can keep emphasizing the importance of what you do. (And there’s the basis for your elevator pitch as advised by Nicky.)

Frank also found it important to create the discipline to get the homework done – despite the fact it’s not as much fun as the research itself. But unless you plan out your time and force yourself to do the background work (finding the calls for proposals, finding out the key issues and pain points, building the arguments for your research) it won’t get done and you risk stalling your career as an academic.

Frank explained also that, although the typical grant committee will be scientists (within the context of EPSRC), they will not be specialists that understand the details of your work. So it is vital to provide overviews and simplifications that enable your audience to understand your work to a level that they engage, get excited and want to back you. If they don’t engage with the promise you hold out then you’ll lose their support. And become just another “no” in the sea of “no” decisions that characterise the world of grant-writing.

Finally, remember that you want somebody to take action. So think hard about what action you seek – whether it be the approval of a research grant or the approval of a PhD. It’s all about persuading people that your research is likely to deliver a way to minimise their problems. So make sure you can see it all from their point of view.