Innovate UK are the UK’s innovation funding agency and part of UKRI. They differentiate themselves from the Research Councils not just by the kind of work they support, but also who they see as their main audience; they are explicitly business-facing and most of the funding they provide is for business-led projects – albeit with research organisations encouraged to join projects as partners. Nevertheless, the amount of grant allowable for partner research organisations is usually capped at a percentage of total project value.
Innovate UK should be seen as a potential funding source for any academic working to apply their research with industry partners – and especially so when the industry partners are active in R&D and capable of leading and managing a project. However, it is important to understand that Innovate UK has different priorities to the Research Councils – more directly linked to stimulating investment in R&D and growing the economy – and that this means that application templates tend to emphasise the business case and issues like scaleability and route to market, rather than focusing on the track record of the researchers involved.
Externally the innovation landscape is changing with the Government’s Innovation Strategy providing a framework for change, with a focus on business. The government is increasing funding for core Innovate UK programmes, reaching circa £1 billion per year by 2024-25, over £300 million more per annum than in 2021-22.
Innovate UK published (November 2021): Building the future economy: plan for action for UK business innovation 2021 to 2025.
Five strategic thematic areas have been identified:
- Future economy- with a focus on net zero, health and wellbeing, technologies and horizon scanning and foresight
- Growth at scale- supporting businesses of all sizes to grow, rather than a focus solely on their projects or novel products
- Global opportunities- including collaboration with overseas partners, building global supply chains of the future, assessing markets and attracting inward investments
- Innovation ecosystem- referencing public agencies, businesses, academia, infrastructure, charities and the regulatory environment
- Government levers- including e.g. legislation, regulation, standards, intellectual property regimes and public procurement
Six strong foundations have been identified:
- Science and research strengths
- Societal impact and responsible innovation
- Innovation talent and skills
- Equality, diversity and inclusion
- Place and levelling up
Much of the grant funding provided by Innovate UK is streamed via a standard set of schemes. A short academic guide for Innovate UK applications is available:
The Smart Grants scheme is Innovate UK’s core funding model for business-led collaborative R&D. With regular deadlines roughly every two months, this scheme is not limited to a particular industry or technology area, so competition can be high.
There are three types of project a Smart Grant can support:
- early feasibility studies to analyse and evaluate the potential of an idea, including market research
- industrial research, with the intention that the skills and knowledge acquired will lead to an improvement in existing products, processes or services
- experimental development, actually developing these new products, processes or services through activities including prototype testing, piloting and demonstration.
In all cases, projects must be business-led; applicants must include SMEs; and research organisations partnering in an application cannot incur more than 30% of total project costs.
The businesses partnering in an application can receive different funding rates depending on their size and the type of project (feasibility, industrial research or experimental development). Universities are reimbursed at the flat rate of 80% FEC.
Minimum project duration is 6 months and minimum project costs are £25k. For projects up to 18 months in duration the maximum project cost is £500k, and for projects from 19 to 36 months in duration the maximum project cost is £2m.
How to make an application
For academics partnering on an Innovate UK grant, the process includes both contributing to the main application on the Innovation Funding Service (IFS) and making a cut-down Je-S application:
- All partner applicants should have access to the main grant on IFS – the lead partner will invite you via the system. On this you will be able to see and edit the entire application with your partners, and you will be asked to complete specific sections that focus solely on the University’s role in the application.
- Your Faculty Research and Innovation Office will help you cost your project contribution via a Je-S application. In addition to the costing, you will be required to complete a Pathway to Impact and Justification of Resources. You may also need to add a summary of the expertise and facilities provided by the University to the project in the section entitled “University of Leeds track record”.
- Once the Je-S is complete, it must be submitted ahead of the IFS deadline, and you must upload the PDF of the Je-S to your section in the IFS. You also take the costings from Je-S and enter them separately into the finances section for the University on IFS, where they are added to the total project costs automatically.
- Each partner must mark every section of the IFS form “Complete” on their version before the application can be submitted by the lead.
It is recommended that you organise time ahead of the deadline to sit with a member of staff from your FRIO and work through the application submission together. It is also recommended that you keep a PDF of the full application for reference.
Features of a successful Smart Grants application
For most Innovate UK applications, the business case is key. A good application includes a robust description of the market being targeted, the competitive advantage gained, and a realistic yet attractive return on investment for the company partners.
Selecting the right partners is important; those with strong routes to market and dominant positions lend credibility to claims that products will be acceptable to users and scaleable, and those with a strong R&D track record in the relevant sector will reassure assessors that technology will be innovative and product development will be robust. If you are seeking partners you can contact the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) to help.
Some of the rules for completing applications are complex, especially in relation to funding. Please contact us for assistance on any aspect of your application.
New Innovation Missions will be announced in due course.
Please see the UK Innovation Strategy page for background information and current priority areas.
In some cases Innovate UK has partnered with other funding bodies to make a specific stream of funding available to focus innovation funding in a particular nascent industry or priority area. Four Catalyst Programmes are currently running, in Industrial Biotechnology, Energy, Agri-Tech and Digital Health Technology. Funding partners include Research Councils and government departments, and competitions can be run by those partner funders or Innovate UK.
Innovate UK-run Catalyst competitions tend to replicate the Smart Grant model, although sometimes with adjustments on, for example, the allowable total project costs or the cap on research organisations’ involvement.
Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP)
Innovate UK also runs the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme, which is an excellent model for working with companies – especially SMEs – with less R&D experience. For more information, visit the dedicated KTP page.
Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI)
The Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) is an innovation procurement programme, rather than a grant funding scheme. It is designed to give innovators in micros and start-ups an opportunity to show how the products and services they are developing can help solve specific challenges in the public sector. This also gives small companies a commercial contract (sometimes their first) so they can start to build a track record and move from pre-revenue status into profit-making.
However, academic-led teams are not excluded from applying to SBRI competitions, as the challenges sometimes require very novel solutions. The key differentiator for an academic to be aware of when considering whether to apply for an SBRI rather than a research grant is that as a procurement competition there will be a focus on delivery of a product or service (possibly in prototype or demonstrator form) for the public sector commissioning body. It can be helpful to partner with a commercial company with a strong delivery track record to both craft an attractive tender and ensure the work is delivered in practice.
SBRI had a new lease of life in recent years with the advent of the Industrial Strategy, under which the GovTech Catalyst was introduced. This supplies a flow of challenges from government departments into the SBRI model. Applications to SBRI competitions are made via the Innovation Funding Service.
International Research and Development Collaborations
Innovate UK has developed an International Innovation Competitions with funding linked to bilateral agreements, e.g. Canada, Singapore and South Korea covering sectors and challenge areas of mutual interest.
Funding opportunities for these schemes are published on the Innovation Funding Service.
As with other schemes, the UK portion of these projects tend to be structured in the standard Innovate UK style, where academic institutions cannot lead an application, but can join as collaborators, as seen in Smart Grants, with some variations to the model.
Other Innovate UK funding schemes
Innovate UK frequently works in partnership with other innovation funders and sometimes helps to run competitions for those partners, which include government departments and charitable funders. For example, competitions for the Strength in Places fund are run in partnership with Research England.
In addition to grant funding, Innovate UK runs an Innovation Loans scheme for SMEs, and partners with angel investors on a series of Investment Accelerator schemes – often around ISCF challenge areas. It also funds the ICURe commercialisation programme for researchers.
The UK’s wider innovation infrastructure
Innovate UK is an anchor funder for innovation in the UK, but is also part of a wider network of innovation support for academic-business collaboration.
Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN)
The KTN fulfils a number of functions within the innovation landscape:
- Helping innovators find a collaboration partner
- Running briefing events for Innovate UK competitions
- Running sector- and technology-specific interest groups
- Providing project-level support for the KTP programme
KTN also produces a flow of information on innovation opportunities through its email newsletters. You can sign up to receive information on particular areas of interest on the KTN website.
The Catapult network is a series of technology centres that provide facilities and expertise to support innovators. Catapults can provide advice, be contracted to work on specific projects, and partner on grant applications.
Each Catapult focuses on a particular technology area:
- Cell and gene therapy
- Compound semiconductor applications
- Connected places
- Energy systems
- High value manufacturing
- Medicines discovery
- Offshore renewable energy
- Satellite applications
A branch of the Connected Places catapult is hosted at Nexus.