Building blocks for the future

Three years ago we started to focus on encouraging ‘challenge-led’ innovation, helping business respond to major issues such as transport emissions, the environmental impact of buildings, or the ageing population. Since then we have thought long and hard about how to simultaneously build the technologies which will be needed to provide the answers to these challenges.  It is never a good plan to wait until the challenge is clearly defined to start work on the answer; much better to develop those technologies where we have UK strength and then fine-tune the linkages between these growing strengths and our evolving definition of the challenges.  So that is what we have done over the past three years.

The first part of the process was to produce our “strategies” in particular technology areas.  These documents are not the result of us sitting in rooms in Swindon and doing book research.  Rather they are us playing back the collated discussions we have had with all of you in business (or at least those we have met so far!).  In those discussions we ask two basic questions.  i) What could you achieve in your field if all went right? And ii) what is stopping you from this?  It is the responses to those sorts of questions that are contained in the strategies we publish.

We take these strategies and use them as the basis for our competitions for research and development funding, focusing on defined areas within the strategies for each separate competition.  Last year we realised that some areas of technology were moving faster than it was possible to organise these larger, focused competitions, so we added a new sort of competition.  In September 2009, we held a £2m competition for Feasibility Studies in all the areas covered by our Technology strategies (Advanced Materials, Nanotechnology, Biosciences, Electronics, Photonics and Electrical Systems and Information and Communications Technologies).  The output of those studies was presented back to the wider community at the first day of our ‘Collaboration Nation’ event just before Easter.  This led, as was intended, to new linkages between members of the community – and even some studies being taken up as commercial projects.  Then in September 2010 we launched the second stage of this process – an £18m competition for more substantive projects.  Some may be based on the earlier feasibility studies, but that is not a prerequisite for entry.  We simply wanted to split the process into two stages so that we could help grow ideas. 

We are now launching the second Feasibility Studies competition.  It will formally open on January 10th and close on February 10th but we have been talking about it since Innovate 10, so we hope its existence is well known. 

Based on last years experience, it will be oversubscribed.  The first Feasibility Studies competition had about 600 entries for the 80 places that our £2m budget could support.  The second stage had over 350 entries for the £18m – we are looking for larger, collaborative projects so are aiming for about 40 or so projects. 

With the growing number of people who know about, and enter, our competitions comes another problem.  Each submitted proposal has to be assessed.  What we are finding is that the general quality of proposals is rising.  Scores are going up.  That means that the criteria we use, and the questions we ask are becoming more and more important to answer.  If you are intending to submit a proposal, the simple advice is the read the question, think about the best and most effective way to answer it and then put it down on the form.  Don’t wait until the last minute, download the form and cut and paste some earlier words into it.  You will also certainly fail to get funding, and be wasting your time. 

This competition, as with all we do, is intended to support those who are developing the best and most innovative projects, either to address major challenges or to build the technologies that are the building blocks of those solutions.  One day, hopefully, these technologies will be part of an important answer.  Let’s make sure they’re good enough.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:07

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