Innovation, strategy and funding for technology businesses

Funding strategies : Innovation grants

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Funding strategies are crucial to businesses and organisations who want to innovate. Projects aimed at bringing new and novel products and services to market are expensive. Research and development (R&D) is a costly activity requiring additional resources.

The funding strategies we are talking about are not general ones. Raising finance is an issue for nearly all business at one time or another, but financing R&D activity has very specific challenges that are worth considering in their own right.

It’s first worth thinking about the reasons for needing the funding. Ask the question: Why do we need this funding? It could be that (1) funding from revenues is a preferred way but we need to consider other options, (2) funding things like trials or new production methods is too costly to do without additional funding or (3) it’s necessary to test the market with a campaign or other promotional activities. Any number of other reasons are valid.

The reasons point towards different options for raising the funding. Innovation grants often will not pay for marketing activities for example. The means they can’t be used for option (3) but a crowdfunding campaign might be a good alternative. Grants are always popular but do have drawbacks. They often only part fund R&D projects meaning it’s necessary to find other ways to fund the balance. Grants also have strict rules in some cases. These rules can be too limiting for certain projects. Innovation loans are a popular alternative with qualifying businesses because they offer very attractive terms and are designed to help bring innovations to market successfully.

As we’re talking about funding R&D projects predominantly, it’s important to consider the project itself in context. Is this an early stage feasibility round or later stage proof of concept? It can be helpful to look at Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) to understand the stage of development and align this to a funding stage. Here is an EU H2020 description of TRLs and here is guidance on funding stages from Innovate UK. It should be possible to work out the TRL and decide where it fits in terms of funding stage or research category. Most rounds have a defined scope which fits one of these stages or categories.

Further reading

Innovation grants are offered to UK SMEs, research organisations and NHS trusts by Innovate UK – Innovate UK grants

The EU also offers an innovation grants programme for SME consortia. It is important to note you cannot apply to this programme as a single entity. It is for collaborative projects – Horizon 2020 Fast Track to innovation

Specifically in health technology innovation, the SBRI Health programme runs themed calls for early and late stage projects – SBRI Health

Need more help?

Contact us below if you are looking for more help or guidance. We are experienced and knowledgable on all of the above grant schemes.

Identifying problems

Problems are numerous and can be found everywhere

Innovative thinkers are people who see problems to be solved everywhere and often quickly come up with potential solutions quickly. Whilst this is strength (seeing things very clearly), it is also a weakness (over simplifying complex issues). Therefore, it is a good idea to have a robust method for identifying the “right” problems to solve.

At the Harvard i-lab, Michael Stok talks about 4U-compliant problems. These are things that potential customers see as (a) Unworkable, (b) Unavoidable, (c) Urgent and (d) Underserved (Unmet need). Tools like this are a good way to test the initial hypothesis that the problem being solved is important enough.

The 4U test could be used in conjunction with or parallel to the 5 whys. 5 whys is an iterative technique that can be useful to stress test the problem thoroughly before moving through the innovation cycle. It is also a good way to make sure the process does not move on too quickly from the initial hypothesis without a robust evidence base from which to build.

The important thing is to experiment with tools like these to see if they work for you before starting to use them in a live situation. Things can get out of hand quite quickly if teams don’t have access to the right tools and the training required to use them.

Human centred design

Businesses that want to innovate are often driven by the need to develop a product or service that is new to the market (or at least they think so). The pressure to accelerate the innovation cycle to iterate quickly and get to a minimum viable product can be over emphasised by investors looking to get early return on investment.

Often, people get forgotten in the innovation cycle. It’s easy to see why; many innovators are in startups, small businesses and lean organisations with limited resource to devote to problems so they have to prioritise and the need to put people at the centre of innovation is not at the top of the list of priorities. It’s not a deliberate or conscious act usually.

Here are three different models that can be used to keep the focus on people when designing new and innovative products or services.

Design Council Double Diamond

The Design Council Double Diamond

The Design Council Double Diamond is part of the Framework for Innovation that is focussed on discipline around using divergent and convergent thinking at appropriate stages during the design process.

IDEO Design Kit

Similar to the Double Diamond, IDEO’s Design Kit is focussed heavily on using divergent and convergent thinking. It is structured around the three step method – Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation that has become one of the cornerstone principles of human centred design.


Stanford has a useful resources for what they call the Virtual Crash Course which employs their design thinking process model.

Design Foundations

All of the above models are suggested by the Innovate UK Design Foundations round that is a useful funding source for early stage scoping projects that are fundamentally human centric. Innovate UK has a website dedicated to the competition.

Universities and mental health

Students can face loneliness dealing with mental health on campus

There is so much technology available to help support young people in terms of mental health. Universities could do more to make sure students have access to appropriate technologies by being more actively engaged with technology providers. Some universities will provide mental health support, including access to mentors. This is expensive though.

Apps like Kooth by XenZone, for example, are more peer driven and could be more effective if actively promoted by universities. This BBC report shows a very patchy picture of support across universities in the UK. Some students do receive mental health support but this is often inconsistent. Clinically validated apps like Brain in Hand are sometimes available to students with pre-diagnosed conditions. The reality is that apps like these are not always deployed effectively and the investment wasted.

More could be done, especially for students who develop mental health conditions once at university.

NHS: Health apps to inform patient records – BBC

The BBC recently reported how data from health apps could be fed directly into patients records. A report from PwC has suggested £4.4bn could be saved by the NHS going “paperless” and the government has already said it will put aside £4bn for the website IT project which will allow patients to book appointments, access medical records and potentially compare services in a number of clinical areas such as dementia, maternity, cancer treatment and others. Although this seems a win-win all round as a “cost neutral” initiative with improvements in patient experience as an output, there could be problems ahead with a key group: the frail elderly.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported in 2015 the number of people in England 100 years old or more has increased by 72% in the last decade. This indicates a fast growing group which does not typically have access to technology or finds it difficult to use. The ORCHA health apps review platform is interesting to take as example of the issue with access to a changing NHS-led digital health landscape. ORCHA is attempting to offer a clinically sound review process for all published apps, but only on Google Play and iOS. This makes sense; these are the two only valid options for users of smartphones and tablets, but it highlights the fact that without a device able to access one of these app stores, patients are unable to be part of this revolution in health care.

New devices, aimed directly at frail elderly groups who have limited capability for using the current generation of smart devices because the are too complicated or difficult to read, would open up the digital health revolution to patients in this group.

The other important factor is that app developers focus on this growing population group when building new apps.


How care apps for the elderly could disrupt – Guardian

Care apps for the elderly could disrupt the tech industry obsession with youth according to The Guardian. In an article looking mainly at US statistics and investor behaviour, the article poses interesting questions about the drive behind demand for apps aimed at social care that will resonate with anyone involved in app development in the medtech sector here in the UK. Telecare is a key area in several important reports on challenges for the NHS such as the 2016 Health Tech report by Nuffield Trust and at the new future for social care conference by The Kings Fund for example. There will be a big challenge for app developers looking to exploit the gap between traditional sectors where apps development is familiar territory and health care, where there is a high degree of regulation and long development timescales are common.

It can take between 12 and 15 years to bring a new product to market within NHS supply.