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The Tories plan to rid innovation funding of red tape

19 Nov 2019

The Tories plan to rid innovation funding of red tape

The Prime Minister has vowed to streamline allocation of grants for tech projects should he win the election

Boris Johnson's pledge to shake up innovation funding has caused a stir among Britain's research community. 

Johnson says he wants to  create a funding agency modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – a US research network that created an early version of the internet. 

The idea is to speed up innovation by reducing funding red tape “to ensure brilliant scientists are able to spend as much time as possible creating new ideas, not filling in unnecessary forms.”

That, however, raises questions over the future of Innovate UK, the technology support agency which distributes research and development grants each year. 

Over the last 12 years Innovate UK has invested more than £2.2bn in innovation. This has spanned more than 11,000 projects that have generated up to £16bn in value to UK economy and 70,000 jobs.

“The thinking on a UK equivalent of the US advanced research project agency is at a very early stage,” says Dr Ian Campbell, executive Chair for Innovate UK. “But, the discussions we’ve been involved with indicate that it is synergistic to the effectiveness and operations of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).”

Innovate UK is no stranger to a restructuring. Just years earlier, it was pooled into UKRI, together with the research councils and Research England. Before that, it had already been part of the Department of Trade and Industry and then had directly reported into the Department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy.

In the 12-year period since it was set up, Innovate UK has poured money into projects ranging from battery technology to autonomous vehicles and vaccines to mobile e-commerce apps. 

Recent years have seen it expand the products it offers, pushing into loans and setting up a new “investment accelerator”, to help channel venture capital cash into start-ups. But still, one of the most common ways it backs businesses is through grants, which companies or consortiums can bid for through competitions.

Innovate UK sets out a goal it wants to meet, for example around sensors for robotics in extreme environments, and British businesses can then apply for funding a project in that space. 

It may sound easy, but that isn’t quite the case, says Nigel Lambert, the founder of Movewrite, which helps companies draft their applications.

“I’d class Innovate as one of the simplest processes around compared to those in Europe, but even then, it’s difficult for a business to navigate. 

“A lot of the people I deal with have different skill sets. They may be scientists or engineers, or commercial people, and for them, it’s almost like speaking Greek reading some of the documents.”

Not only can it prove tough for inexperienced entrepreneurs to understand the process, but such competitions have also become increasingly oversubscribed in recent years.

Thang Vo-Ta, co-founder and chief executive of femtech business Callaly, estimates there were probably 1,200 companies bidding for the latest bucket of around £20-25m of cash it had applied for.

“We’ve rolled with the punches,” he says. “We dealt with a lot of rejections. People had told us to get in touch with Innovate UK, and we applied, and got rejected, and we applied again, and got rejected, and so then we tried again and only then we finally got some cash.”

Some who have gone through the process to secure funding describe the allocation process as “somewhat haphazard”, given it relies on independent adjudicators who it drafts in to decide who to award the funding to. Those people would ideally be innovative, creative people, but, some argue, can appear to have been chosen for their availability.

The changes in recent years, and growing competitiveness of the cash, has also prompted criticism that there is new distance between entrepreneurs and those monitoring the investment.

“The people who set it up originally were very much involved, and then it got more… it seemed like there were more layers of administration,” one founder says. “Before it seemed like the people in charge were more directly involved and really on top of it.”

And, of course, what the “challenges” are, and what could get funding, is determined by current government policies. “With different governments, the preferences change and the focuses change,” one founder says.

But even with these things, the general feeling among the entrepreneurial community is that Innovate UK is vital.

“We’ve been developing a new treatment for wounds, which we calculated could save the NHS 60-70pc of the amount they’re annually spending on wound care, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the grants,” says Frank Sams-Dodd, one of the founders of Willingsford Limited. 

“You wouldn’t have the level of innovation we have in the UK without it. Whatever hiccups there are in the way, it is essential.”

That may be the case for now, but in a few years time, the landscape could look very different. A US-style funding agency would likely raise some questions about the role of Innovate UK, and whether it should be working in the realm of driving research or in becoming more part of an investment organisation – something that had been a debate within the organisation years ago.

Article & Image Source: The Telegraph

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