Running Rock

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In May 2014, Jon Colgan's startup CellBreaker won the NC IDEA grant. This is the second of a multi-post series in which he recounts his experience applying and competing for, and winning the grant. NC IDEA announced 19 Fall 2014 grant cycle finalists on Tuesday, September 30. This is for them.

Yea though I walk through the valley of death because... NC IDEA.

It's not Biblical. The "valley of death" reference comes from NC IDEA's Andrea Cook: 

"The NC IDEA grant is really designed to address that valley of death between idea/concept and your first round of funding." 

Take it from me. I've been bootstrapping CellBreaker for about a year and a half, with NC IDEA grant funds on our balance sheet for only about 3 months. That valley of death is a veritable graveyard of otherwise great ideas. If not for the NC IDEA grant, CellBreaker might not have made it out alive. 

I've written before about my #1 tip for winning an NC IDEA grant, and now, here's my #2 tip: need it. Get this BS about "deserve" out of your mind. No one wins an NC IDEA grant because they're most deserving. Folks win the NC IDEA grant because they do the best job of articulating that they have an NC IDEA-shaped need and that it's the one thing holding them back. Three things there:

  1. A need.
  2. That this need is one that the NC IDEA grant is well-suited to solve.
  3. That solving this need could unleash the floodgates of your startup's potential.
So, like so many other elements of transforming your idea into a business, the challenge here is storytelling. In this case, to win an NC IDEA grant, you have to place your startup somewhere on a plot timeline -- ideally, in some chapter past chapter one. Think about this "valley of death" metaphor, and the valley being the low point between to higher points. Does your story have two higher points?

The first high point is what we might call momentum. How have you validated your idea? Do you have a prototype built, paying customers, or strategic partnerships in place? These are the honeymoon-phase little victories that NC IDEA wants to hear you brag about. Keep in mind that, at this point in your story, you will not have validated every aspect of your idea. So, don't, as my mother used to say, "get too big for your britches." At best, NC IDEA could view you as naive; at worst, a person who wears small britches. But do highlight what you've done so far, what you've learned, and which next steps you think will drive the most value for your startup (and explain why).

Then conclude by saying, "oh, what a coincidence, all we need to take these next steps is about $50K." Break that suspiciously-spot on cost estimate down to describe your NC IDEA-shaped need. That's the valley of death.

The second high-point is your chance to be remembered. NC IDEA looks at about 150 applications a cycle. It's easy to blend in, so don't. How big is your idea's market? How will it change the world? Why you (Herbert Hoover said, "Men's inventions cannot be of more value than men themselves")? NC IDEA CEO Dave Rizzo remembers change and looks for it. The term "disruptive" comes to mind here. 

There they are, the NC IDEA reviewers, swimming in a sea of grant applications, the words and ideas of innovators like you. If asked, I would say that these reviewers don't want to believe in a stable world. In so many words, state why you and your idea decline to accept a stable world. But remember that, in a written application, what you say is more important than how you say it. Save the histrionics for the final pitch.

Now, go write your story, and make sure it has two high points and a valley.