Several years back, I worked for a non-profit consulting company that supported small businesses. We helped several companies to get SBIR grants (both phase I and II). I didn`t see any evidence of the "good ol` boy" situation. However, it was clear to me that knowing how to prepare the application plus what to do before and after it is submitted will improve the probability of success. It is rare that a SBIR grant is awarded to a pure startup - so congratulations on getting as far as you did.
I`m not aware of any federal grants for startups. However, there are usually some local or regional programs which vary widely depending upon your location. Most that I have heard about are geared to helping people start local "lifestyle type businesses and provide small amounts to each successful applicant.
If one is intending to create a substantial business - I would not include grants in my overall capital strategy.