It may not be perfect, but it is fair

A few weeks ago, we were pleased to see that several of our recent competitions for R&D funding had been heavily oversubscribed. To us, this meant that we had held competitions in areas that were appropriate, where there was significant UK capability and where those with that capability thought they had innovative ideas. Since we mainly award co-funding grants, these proposals all contained a commitment by the companies involved to invest their own money in the future success of their sector of the UK economy. 

Last week we became aware of the downside of the popularity of our competitions, as we received a fair number of letters and e-mails from those disappointed that they had not made it past the first stage of the assessment process. We often say that we support innovative UK-based companies.  However, to be more accurate, what we mostly do is support innovative projects that are being developed by a group of (innovative) companies. We have a process that has been developed over several years to try to maximise the benefit of this activity. 

We start by consulting the relevant community and trying to find out what they could do – their aspirational goals – and what the barriers are that are stopping them. We publish this as a “strategy”. This is really a living document that records our understanding of that sector of activity. Within each strategy is a series of specific challenges and we use those challenges to shape the competitions that we traditionally run. Once we have decided on a specific focus for a competition, we try to engage the community to ensure that they understand what we have learned from them and the sort of proposals we are expecting as a result. 

Once the competition is launched we are into a more formal process, which has approval under State Aids rules. In the first stage we ask for a fairly short proposal (which we call an Expression of Interest) to capture the goals and value of the project. Each proposal is read and scored by at least four independent assessors and then the scores are moderated to ensure fairness and consistency. This produces a rank order and we then run down the list and in sequence allow projects amounting to a multiple of the available money - typically twice as much - through to the second stage. 

The second stage requires a more detailed proposal, but it follows the same principles – answering the Technology Strategy Board criteria, demonstrating value for money and so on.  All these conditions are available from our web site in documents that can be downloaded and studied. The full proposals go through another independent assessment process, moderation and ordering.  These projects are then allocated funding in order until the available money for the competition is all assigned. 

Overall, the combination of a heavily trailed strategic focus but a competitive selection process should mean that we address the right issues with the most compelling projects.

This process was developed within the then DTI, and since we were set up and inherited the programme 18 months ago we have refined the process and shortened the timescales involved. It has worked well over that time; our initial calls have usually had about 3 or 4 times more proposals than we could afford entering the first stage, we have allowed up to twice the affordable number through to the second stage, and discovered that natural drop-out and other factors have left the process largely in balance.

A couple of our recent competitions have caused us to rethink this approach.  The High value manufacturing competition - for which we had allocated £24m of funding - received proposals in the first stage that totalled over £260m, and the Ultra-efficient systems for the market advancement of electric and hybrid vehicles competition, with an allocated £10m of funding, received proposals totalling over £78m. 

This unprecedented level of interest has stretched our process. There are a large number of people out there who have submitted expressions of interest to these competitions and who learned last week that they were unsuccessful in getting to the next stage.  They were naturally disappointed, and quite a few contacted us both to express that disappointment and to seek more information on why they had failed to pass this hurdle and what they could do to make sure any future proposal was more effectively presented. 

In the past, we had not given full feedback at the first stage, informing those who were unsuccessful only of their percentile position in the rank ordered list.  At the second stage, the technologist responsible for the area of work has extracted the important points raised by the assessors and provided more detailed feedback.

It is now becoming clear that it would be helpful to the consortium members to receive feedback at both stages. The answers to the questions asked in the application effectively form a cut-down business plan, and getting feedback on that enables companies to deal with the issues they maybe hadn’t yet considered and generally hone their commercial arguments. Our current problem is that we don’t have the resource available to provide feedback for this number of unsuccessful proposals. So, although we have engaged with the community to target the right areas for support, our very success has meant that there are now many people out there with good ideas that we cannot currently support

It’s a strange and unsatisfying form for success to take and we are now thinking through what can be done to improve the process and the experience in future.

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:32

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