The UK is a world leader in new ideas, and through Innovate UK we now have a mechanism for transforming them into products. Nigel Rix explains how to obtain funding to help face the risks and challenges of innovation.
“Innovate or die” has been the retail sector’s mantra for many years – and there are many examples of retailers that are no longer in business because they failed to listen to their customers or adopt new technology.
The manufacturing sector is now facing similar challenges and it will be survival of the fittest – those who can adopt new technologies and adapt to customer demands.
The fourth industrial revolution
The industry has seen the rise of disruptive technologies, such as additive manufacturing, which provide new manufacturing technologies that can reduce costs and improve product performance and capabilities.
But adopting new technology has risks, and the biggest potential risk is in the area of information technology which underpins the fourth industrial revolution. Just as previous industrial revolutions introduced mechanisation, mass production and automation, bringing new opportunities and challenges for manufacturers; the move to the greater use of data will generate winners and losers based on who can best adopt the new methodologies.
The greater productivity of German manufacturers has been attributed to their adoption of Industry 4.0. While a weak pound is artificially maintaining the competitive nature of the UK manufacturing sector for exports, this factor may reduce as we approach Brexit.
Large companies are able to plan for these changes. They can create transformation teams to evaluate, learn and implement the required changes.
But for SMEs, the challenges of funding these activities (both cash and staff) are often too great and so they take risks by either making changes without doing the required work to understand the impact – or they simply do nothing. This strategy has led to the failure of many companies – as we all see on today’s high streets.
Helping industry innovate is the role of Innovate UK and its ‘family’ of Catapults and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN). Since 2007, Innovate UK has invested around £1.8bn in innovation, which has been more than matched by the private sector – returning between £11.5bn and £13.1bn to the economy.
It has supported innovation in 7,600 organisations, creating around 55,000 new jobs. There is potential to do much more – and so to become even more effective they are making some significant changes.
This year, Innovate UK restructured into a set of four directorates to provide a clearer structure for their work and help industry understand their strategy. The most relevant directorates for our sector are two groups: ‘Materials & Manufacturing’ and ‘Emerging and Enabling Technologies’.
Funding is awarded to organisations via competitions. Each competition is funded by one of the divisions and has a defined set of topics. Access is via written applications for funding for a fixed period. After the closing date all the applications are reviewed and the ‘best’ are awarded funding.
The major competitions have a fund of approximately £15m for grants to support projects. They are often organised into two steams. Stream one for smaller projects and Stream two for larger collaborative projects.
Stream one is particularly relevant to smaller companies. Proposed projects can last for up to 12 months with a project cost of up to £100,000. The aim is to fund projects that are highly innovative and which could potentially generate increased revenues and profitability, but which are too risky or challenging to be undertaken from internal budgets.
It allows companies to evaluate innovation and new technologies without having to commit the full costs from internal funds. The changes can then be implemented with reduced risk and increased benefits.
There are many examples of companies that have used Innovate UK funding for feasibility studies. The ‘Shadow Robot case study’ below provides a good example of the funding support undertaken by Innovate UK, and a collection of Collaboration Nation Case Studies is available at: bit.ly/2erfJIc
Where to go next
Despite the new simplification it can still be confusing for any company that has not worked with Innovate UK. Helping industry understand and maximise their opportunities of winning funding is the role of the KTN.
As well as running the briefing sessions for each competition, we can provide support for individual companies to understand the funding landscape and how to maximise their chances of winning funding.
Shadow Robot: case study
Shadow Robot is a technology start-up where Innovate UK funding and the KTN helped the early development of the company.
Shadow Robot was set up in 1997 by a group of people who were building robots for fun, with Rich Walker as MD. They wanted to move out of the research lab and into the commercial world but didn’t have the resources until they were awarded Innovate UK funding. In 2013, Shadow Robot was awarded grant funding of £70,000 towards total costs of £93,000 for its project.
It’s the way Innovate UK bridges the development gap between the research lab and commercial viability that makes it so valuable, and according to Walker, “Innovate UK helps companies like us make that critical transition from boutique engineering to rugged industrial engineering – from a system that just works in the lab to one with real commercial applications. It’s a great model.
“So where people wouldn’t normally come together, Innovate UK enables them to meet and understand problems, and then receive competition funding to try and solve those problems. This is something that is now the envy of the world,” added Walker.
See bit.ly/IUKshadow for the full Shadow Robot case study.