Innovate UK – Grant writing, Bid management and Securing innovation funding

UK Governmental Innovation Strategy

The UK Government has a vision to position the UK as a global hub for innovation by 2035. By supporting companies to grow through the development and commercialisation of new products and services, the government hopes to increase innovation, boosting the economy, creating jobs and promoting continued sustainable growth. These funds are largely managed by Innovate UK, a non-departmental funding body and part of the UK Research and Innovation organisation. Through exceptionally competitive formal funding competitions, Innovate UK aims to “inspire, involve and invest” in companies, driving viable, compelling business opportunities forward.

The UK Government’s innovation strategy, as supported by The Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS), aims to drive innovation into four specific areas, which are reflected in the funding competitions and opportunities organisations can bid for:

  • Sustainable Environment - for example, Net Zero and green growth
  • Health and Life Sciences - focused on world leading improvements to both physical and mental health, as well as disease prevention globally
  • National Security and Defence – this includes space and focuses on modern challenges and innovative security solutions
  • Digital and Data Driven Economy – using digital technology to create growth and improve security

Challenges faced within these four areas are sought to be solved using specific technological areas of innovation that are prioritised and seen as strengths to develop in the UK:

  • Advanced materials and manufacturing
  • AI, digital and advanced computing
  • Bioinformatics and genomics
  • Engineering biology
  • Electronics, photonics and quantum
  • Energy and environment technologies
  •  Robotics and smart machines

To support wider growth strategies, the government has specified the following four categories as specific areas for Research & Development (R&D) funding:

  • Fundamental research
  • Feasibility studies
  • Industrial research
  • Experimental development.

This guide will look to provide a comprehensive overview of the current innovation funding market and how to bid successfully for Innovate UK funding competitions.


Innovate UK – from a Bid Writers perspective

Put simply, Innovate UK is the central funder for Innovation in the UK, managing billions of pounds of available grant-in-aid funding from the government each year. These formal opportunities to secure funding are your chance to bid. Depending on the specific competition, (the opportunity to seek investment), funding ranges from £20,000 upwards to £20m and is typically awarded to fund projects of between 12 to 36 months. Innovate UK fund between 25% to 70% of eligible project costs dependant on the size of the business and the type of project.

All Innovate UK funding focuses on:

  • Giving businesses (often SMEs) the chance to innovate (specifically funding higher risk opportunities, unlikely to receive backing from elsewhere – often termed “disruptive ideas”)
  • Attracting the skills and talent required into the UK
  • Collaborating with research and development institutions and Universities, for example, to meet specific business needs
  • Finding technology solutions to significant and largescale challenges facing the world or specifically to the UK.

As a broad rule, Innovate UK are more focused on the idea and associated business plan showing scalability, rather than purely the previous performance of the bidding organisation looking to win the grant. Those wanting to secure funding must ensure they fully understand the opportunity, have spent time reviewing the available documentation and videos in detail and can fully meet the eligibility criteria. Like any bid or tender opportunity, you need to go through a bid or no bid assessment to consider whether it is right for your business and whether you stand to secure the funding.

Typically, you will have around 3 months from an opportunity becoming live to the deadline to submit to create your bid. This may seem like ample time but the competition for these funds is extremely fierce and you need to ensure you have fully researched your idea and have a very clear and innovative plan of attack. As well as supporting documents to accompany the funding application, such as a business plan, team bios and project risk register for example, you will also need to formally respond to a number of questions within specific word counts.


Bid Writing Support

While organisations are often very confident with their solution and have collated a strong business case to receive funding, they may wish to seek external bid consultancy and grant writing support to submit and improve this element of the funding application. An outside perspective can always help to refine your bid, making it more understandable and clear for those who do not know your business in the same in-depth way you do. Clarity is key here, with competition incredibly fierce, you need the buyer to fully understand precisely what you are proposing.

Innovate UK published that in 2020 to 2021 they funded £885m, which is a huge amount of money, however this figure only represents a 14% award rate The application process and association bid writing preparation can be very time consuming and with the process being so competitive, it is essential you have done your research.

Each opportunity has its own eligibility criteria and specific focus, which are clearly detailed by the Innovation Funding Service. Opportunities are advertised under specific “problem” terms such as Clean Maritime Technologies, Farming Innovation and Greener Railways, seeking projects to respond to pertinent issues.


Building the Future Economy plan of action for UK business innovation 2021 to 2025

At the end of last year, Innovate UK published the Building the Future Economy plan of action for UK business innovation 2021 to 2025, which details their priorities and areas of importance:

  • Future economy - net zero, health and wellbeing and technology
  • Growth at scale - a focus on growing the business rather than a pure focus on the innovative technology product being funded, for example
  • Global opportunities - developing global supply chains of the future, assessing markets and attracting inward investment
  • Innovation ecosystem - collaboration between public bodies, academia, business and the third sector
  • Government levers – such as legislation, regulation, standard and public procurement.

They then have six core foundations:

  • Science and research strengths
  • Design
  • Societal impact and responsible innovation
  • Innovation talent and skills
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion
  • Place and levelling up

Grant funding provided by Innovate UK is streamed via a standard set of schemes:

  • Smart Grants
  • Innovative Missions
  • Catalyst Programmes
  • Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP)
  • Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI)
  • International Research and Development Collaborations
  • Other Innovative UK funding schemes.

For a full list of live competitions please see - https://apply-for-innovation-funding.service.gov.uk/competition/search


Innovate UK Smart Grants – writing a successful grant application

As Thornton & Lowe largely works with businesses and has a large SME client base, we thought providing an insight into Smart Grants would be most beneficial.

Smart Grants are focused on SME business driven Research & Development (R&D) projects and while there is a specific eligibility criteria, the fund is not limited by a specific sector or area of technology.

The grant can support:

(1) feasibility studies and (2) industrial research. As a micro or small organisation, you are eligible to have up to 70% of your project costs funded. A medium sized organisation can up to 60% of costs with a large organisation getting up to 50%.

(3) experimental development, which involves developing new products. As a micro or small organisation, you can get up to 45% of your project costs. A medium sized organisation can up to 35% of costs with a large organisation getting up to 25%.

Projects can be 6 to 12 months with total costs between £100k and £500k, through to longer 18 to 36 month projects, which can have costs between £100k and £2m. Please note, these longer projects must be collaborative.


Top Bid Writing Tips and things to remember when writing your Smart Grant Application

  • Smart Grants are very competitive, often receiving over 2500 applications with less than 10% of the best submissions (scoring over 80%) being successful
  • You only get 2 attempts as an organisation to bid, so make them count
  • Real innovation is key – ‘game changing’ or ‘disruptive’ projects, which create a substantial impact for the UK and the business itself with regards to commercialisation - it's got to be BIG
  • Smart Grants are for SMEs or organisations linked to an SME plays a key role within the project
  • These grants have to be delivered in the UK, with staff from the UK
  • If you can fund your project elsewhere, through another grant or private investment, you won't be successful. It is therefore important to research into other likely funds. It needs to arguably be seen as too big, too much of a RISK to receive private funding.

Grant Writing – Innovation UK Smart Grant

Competitions are reopened throughout the year and provide you with around 3 months to prepare and submit your bid.

First things first, ensure you fully meet the eligibility criteria, engage with the webinar for the specific competition and ask any questions or seek any clarifications you may have. With the high number of applications, it is important you don’t just tick the box and meet the criteria but your idea or solution is highly competitive and really maximises what Innovate UK are looking for. Using a Bid Writing Consultancy, such as Thornton & Lowe, can provide both capacity and expertise. 

To successfully write a Smart Grant application or bid you need:

  • The idea (clear game changing innovation, which meets Innovate UKs requirements)
  • A robust and considered business plan considering market size, scope, financial return of investment and project risks
  • For the longer-term projects attracting higher levels of funding, you need to collaborate. For this you can use the Knowledge Transfer Network which is available via the Innovate UK website
  • Persuasive and accurate responses to a list of formal questions regarding your idea, why you need funding, the market, the impact it will have, how you will deliver the project and who is involved and their unique expertise. To score as highly as possible you need to provide depth and evidence wherever possible


Thornton & Lowe can provide Bid Writing Support for Innovate UK Grants & Funding

Contact us now if you:

  • Are assessing whether a Smart Grant is right for you
  • Want to know if your idea is a good fit
  • Need support writing the grant and completing the required research
  • Would like to have your application reviewed by an expert Bid Writer who can offer advice with regards to compliance and added value opportunities, before it is submitted.

Speak with a Bid Writing expert today


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