3 things you need to do when writing an RFP–and how to do them more effectively

You’re a scientist, an engineer, or an innovator more generally. You have an innovation interest, for which you are seeking outside help. So, you need to write an RFP (request for proposals).

What’s an RFP? Why would you write one?

An RFP, or request for proposals, is a document where you specify an innovation interest. You use the RFP to invite others to send you proposals on‌ ‌your‌ ‌innovation‌ ‌interest. These “others” could be other companies or scientists, for example.

Companies tend to call these documents “RFP”, whereas government agencies tend to use the term “call for proposals”, or CFP. I use both terms interchangeably here.

Writing an RFP is a lot of work. Here, I’ll focus on three of the things you need to do:

3 tasks to do when writing an RFP

1. You have to know what exists already

You need to understand the context of your technology interest. That is, you need to know what else is “out there”. After all, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel with your project. In addition to the current state of R&D, there are other things you need to know. For example, there might be companies that already provide a solution, or part of a solution, to your innovation interest. Somebody may have relevant patents. And you need to identify the markets you can target with your innovation.

2. You have to use a common language with your audience

You might use a certain vernacular to describe your innovation interest–but this may be unique to your organization. If this is the case, your language choices may reduce your likelihood of receiving proposals.

3. Your budget has to match your expectations

You’ll only have so much money you can spend on your project. And you’ll have to know what you can realistically expect to accomplish, given your budget. Otherwise, your RFP won’t be competitive, and you will get fewer or lower-quality proposals. Not to mention that your credibility will likely suffer as well.

It can easily take you days to research the innovation context of your RFP, to get the language right, and to size the project realistically.

Mergeflow helps you accomplish these tasks effectively

As I said above, there are other things you need to do as well for your RFP, beyond the tasks I mentioned above. But these three tasks alone can keep you busy for days–if you do them manually. You’d have to do a considerable amount of research, and probably also guesswork.

Are you looking for a place to submit your RFP?

Halo is a marketplace and network that connects scientists directly with companies for research collaborations and funding opportunities. Check it out at halo.science.

In what follows, I’ll show you how Mergeflow’s tech discovery software helps you accomplish these tasks effectively. And you’ll also see that it helps you reduce guesswork.

1. Quickly get a 360° view on what exists already in the context of your RFP

As I said above, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel with your project. Plus, there might be some other innovation that makes you reframe your project. Therefore, you need to know what exists already. You need a 360° view on the science, technology, and business context of your RFP. This context includes other companies and innovators, patents, R&D, and markets, for instance.

Collecting and organizing all this information manually takes forever. Mergeflow automates many of these tasks, and provides insights from across science and business ‌all in‌ ‌one‌ ‌place. This means that with Mergeflow, you can get a first useful approximation to your context in 20-30 minutes.



By searching for “jobs to be done”, you’re more likely to discover relevant innovations that come from unexpected directions

When you do your 360° search, you could search for the technologies you’re after. For example, let’s say you work in biomedical imaging, and your innovation interest is image deblurring (= removing blur from images). You could search Mergeflow for terms like “deblurring”, “wavelet sharpening”, or “image deconvolution”. The results would look something like this (click on the image to see a larger version):

A Mergeflow RFP context search for 'image deblurring technologies'. Shown are some results from science publications and technology licensing offers.
A Mergeflow RFP context search for ‘image deblurring technologies’. Shown are some results from science publications and technology licensing offers.

You’ll probably find some useful results here.

But‌ ‌what‌ ‌if‌ ‌there‌ ‌is‌ ‌a‌ ‌technology that you didn’t think of that accomplishes the same thing?

This is where “jobs to be done” comes in. Jobs to be done is a theory of consumer action made famous by the late Clayton Christensen. It states that consumers buy or rent products to “make progress in specific circumstances” (quote from the Christensen Institute’s definition of jobs to be done). You can use jobs to be done for your RFP context search: Rather than searching for the technologies, you search for the job that those technologies are hired to do.

For example, you might hire image deblurring technologies for getting ultra-high-resolution images. So instead of searching for “image deblurring” etc., we now search for “ultra-high resolution”. This gives us a much broader set of results. For example, we now also get venture-backed companies. Here is a screenshot of some of these results (click on the image to see a larger version):

Venture-backed companies for a job-to-be-done-search for 'ultra-high resolution' in Mergeflow. The job-to-be-done-approach helps you find valuable context when writing an RFP.
Venture-backed companies for a job-to-be-done-search for ‘ultra-high resolution’ in Mergeflow. The job-to-be-done-approach helps you find valuable context when writing an RFP.

Now you might object, “I’m looking for information that helps me write my RFP. I don’t want to collect companies”. This is an important point, and ‘collecting companies’ is not what we want to do here. Think of the results as a jumping-off-board for finding interesting technologies. For example, you could look for technical information in a company’s website (such as Eikon’s here).

Search broadly, and use an alarm clock

Knowing the context of your innovation interest goes beyond knowing the current state of (published) R&D, as we just saw with the venture-backed companies.

For example, market analyses can help you map out a technology or business area. They can also help you identify applications and markets for your innovation interests. And publicly funded research projects provide useful data for defining your project scope. I will talk about this below.


Related: In our series of articles, Sources for technology and business insights explained, we discuss in more detail what kinds of insights you can expect from different kinds of sources.


Now, if you go broad with your search, which I believe you should, there is a danger of getting from one interesting thing to the next, and the next, and the next…

And then you notice that you just spent the whole afternoon searching.

Of course, this is what we wanted to avoid in the first place. There is a simple remedy though: for your “tech discovery session”, set an alarm clock to 20 minutes. The goal of these 20 minutes is not to be comprehensive, but to get a first useful approximation to your topic.

For a first useful approximation, collect seven or so findings, and then discuss these findings with a subject-matter expert (if this is not you). In order to guide you through such a 20-minute discovery session, we made a 360° search checklist for you.



2. Find out how others describe your RFP topic

Above I said that your RFP should use language that your target audience understands. This can be surprisingly tricky. Particularly if you work in a large organization, chances are that you use terminology that’s specific to your organization. In other words, you might use language that only you and your colleagues understand. And on top of this, because you use this terminology every day, you might not even consider whether or not to use it. It’s almost like a reflex (= happens without thinking about it).

So, how can you find out what language people use to talk about the things that interest you?

Use Mergeflow’s keyword suggestions

In order to find alternative wordings, you can use Mergeflow’s keyword suggestions. When you start searching, Mergeflow will suggest semantically related terms for your search query. This helps you find alternative terms, as well as broaden your search.

For example, let’s say your innovation interest is in energy scavenging. When you type “energy scavenging” in Mergeflow, it suggests the terms to the right (click on the image to see a larger version):

When you enter a search term, Mergeflow suggests semantically related terms that you can add to your search.
When you enter a search term, Mergeflow suggests semantically related terms that you can add to your search.

You can broaden your search by clicking on the terms you want to add. Watch the 14-second video below to see how it works:

You can use Mergeflow’s keyword suggestions to expand your search. Add a term to your search by clicking on it.

Scan some titles and teasers in your results that contain your RFP terms

In order to see your terms surrounded by some context, scan some‌ ‌titles‌ ‌and‌ ‌teasers‌ ‌in‌ ‌your‌ ‌results‌ ‌set. This helps you identify ambiguous usage of your terms. For example, look at the “energy scavenging” teasers in the screenshot below (click on the image to see a larger version):

You can identify ambiguous usage of your search terms by scanning some titles and teasers in your results set.
You can identify ambiguous usage of your search terms by scanning some titles and teasers in your results set.

You can see that in the last two teasers, the term “energy scavenging” is used in a different context. This suggests that you should either use an alternative term (e.g. “power harvesting”), or add clarifying context in your RFP.

3. Get data that can help you define your project scope

As I said at the beginning, I assume that you have a certain maximum budget for your project. This means that your RFP needs to be scoped in such a way that what you are asking for is feasible,‌ ‌given‌ ‌your‌ ‌budget.

How do you determine what’s feasible, given your budget?

You could start off by estimating how much it would cost if you were to do the project yourself. But your organization might have a very different cost structure from, for example, a research lab at a university, or a startup company. So you need some external information as well. Basically, you’d need to know what the going rate is for the type of project you’re planning.

Now, you won’t find a project that addresses your exact innovation interest. If there were such a project, you’d have found it in Step 1 above, where you explored what exists already. But it’s likely that there are other projects that are somewhat comparable.

Mergeflow helps you find such projects. It collects and organizes data from various government research sponsors, including the NSF, SBIR, EU CORDIS, and Innovate UK. The information it extracts include the project description, companies or research labs involved, the PI (principal investigator), and the funding amount. Non-USD funding amounts are converted to USD, so you can easily compare the amounts.

From the point of view of a research lab or a startup, government research funding is a competitive alternative to what you are offering. So you can use information on publicly funded research projects to benchmark the scope of your project.

Here’s an example of how this works: Let’s say your innovation interest is in the area of carbon capture, and that your project budget is $100,000. You can search for carbon capture projects, either very broadly or more specific, depending on your interests. Then‌ ‌you‌ ‌look into the projects that received funding of up to $100,000 in more detail.

The 29-second video below shows you how you can do this in Mergeflow:

Using Mergeflow to explore NSF projects in the area of “carbon capture”.

Featured photo by Lauren Mancke on Unsplash.

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