A pause for thought: grant funding in the context of COVID-19

Updated: Jun 11

Given the current uncertainty that COVID-19 has created, there is no doubt that startups and established businesses alike are waiting for the £25m Innovate UK (IUK) Smart Grant competition to relaunch. Paused in May 2020, it seems that IUK received a larger than expected volume of applications into its most recent Smart Grant call.

Stating the obvious, a huge influx of applications into a particular funding call at any time for IUK will cause an enormous amount of work for those people involved in the eligibility and review processes. Couple that with the high levels of COVID-19 enforced remote working currently implemented across government funding agencies and one can only imagine the difficulty in processing tens of thousands of submissions to a funding call.

So what does a “pause” mean? Sceptically, it could simply be demand management. Plenty of grant funding agencies that operate under the UK Research and Innovation umbrella have their own ways of avoiding sifting through an inordinate amount of applications in every call.

Government funding agencies, including IUK, have a spend profile to hit annually. If IUK detects that a particular funding call (e.g. Smart Grant) has immense popularity among UK innovators, they may choose to rethink how they spread the budget across the financial year. In practice this might look like a higher frequency of Smart Grant funding calls over a calendar year. Alternatively, IUK might consider changing the format of the Smart Grant call, altering it to being two-staged; with an initial sift required to avoid high submission levels of ineligible or out of scope applications.

A “pause” could manifest as a rebrand. For example, as submission rates have increased in recent rounds of Smart Grants, IUK may have identified excellent innovations that would benefit from public funding but do not quite fit the criteria for the call. This could trigger internal dialogue within IUK to consider how they might be more agile and use their budget to create another funding call suitable for some of these innovations.

On a connected note, the thought process of IUK could be that the scope of the Smart Grant needs widening or narrowing to ensure that the criteria for the call means the original IUK deliverables for the program are met.

In the wider context, we must remember that innovation funding for business does not begin and end with IUK Smart Grants! For one, IUK has a whole array of grant funding calls available for startups and established businesses in different sectors, from healthcare to aerospace. If you are considering working in Europe, the EUREKA Eurostars program or Horizon2020 funding could also be of relevance to you. If you are working in the clean energy sector, the upcoming Energy Catalyst Round 8 (June 2020) from Innovate UK is a funding to call to be aware of. If you would like any information on eligibility, how to apply or on preparing an application, get in touch with Grant Starter and we can help you.

There is little denying that COVID-19 is impacting the way grant funding is distributed in the UK. Schemes including continuity grants are available to current IUK award holders but new and recurring grant funding calls for businesses are very likely to continue as they have previously. It is worth noting that a headline objective of the Government’s Industrial Strategy is to increase the UK’s investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. It is almost a given that R&D grant funding will have a major role to play in achieving this.

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