Our unsuccessful application to Innovate UK
In July 2016, we learned that Innovate UK was inviting applications to part-fund projects in a variety of areas relating to Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, guided by a policy from the Government’s specialist policy unit, CCAV.
We decided to apply, and with two ideas in mind, began filling our limited spare time with research, background reading, and attending events organised by the Knowledge Transfer Network and Innovate UK.
Having now heard that we were unsuccessful on both applications, we agreed that we would share our experience and documentation, as well as the feedback we have received.
We are doing this not because we disagreed with the opinions, judgement or rules of the funding process, but because looking back we feel we have some valuable feedback to share with future applicants and the competition organisers alike.
Myself and Rob Stead, Managing Director, spent around 2 days on each application, having also each attended a couple of events and spent a number of hours researching the project ideas and background reading. The applications were submitted in November, with feedback arriving this month, on 17 March (3 weeks later than originally scheduled).
Since the project ideas are now separated from our business plan, I’ll add every document for the application which was judged most harshly, a project idea we called AVERT.
AVERT, or Autonomous Vehicle Equestrian Recognition Technology, was proposed as a feasibility study to explore the interactions, safety implications and possible solutions to autonomous vehicles interacting with equestrian road users.
It came about from my realisation that no research on this had been performed, published or investigated. The British Horse Society agreed, and having met with its Director of Safety, confirmed that its members saw this as a major concern.
After some investigation, we felt that the Feasibility Study application stream was the best course to take. In the guidance given to us verbally, this was perfect for companies that had not applied before; investigating new ideas where it was difficult to know the business case or impact of the idea.
Furthermore, this ‘stream’ of application, if successful, would develop and provide enough evidence to justify and create a wider application, with partners (i.e. in a consortium of technology providers) for an R&D project at some later date.
The feedback, all in all, was pretty damning. In short, it made us feel like the smart kids that had been taught a lesson by their examiners in school… There was a great deal wrong with our application, and we cannot disagree with the findings of the assessors.
However, there are a few things that should be highlighted for you, particularly if you could be future applicants of future calls in future funding competitions.
Firstly, and most painfully, the project was deemed out of scope because it was not collaborative.
We thought we knew what ‘collaborative’ meant, in fact listing several companies we wanted to work with during the AVERT feasibility study, essentially an extended piece of research and project planning – examining the project’s potential impact and thus its feasibility. We had been in contact with each of these organisations, gained their support for the concept and acceptance to be mentioned as partners for the research phase and, dependent on its findings, part of a consortium for a subsequent R&D project.
The slightly more detailed definition of collaboration as ‘2 or more grant receiving partners’ was completely missed by us, but used in the feedback document by one assessor for – what we felt was – the first time. The scope of what ‘collaborative’ means is neither online, nor in the guidance documents we had access to. We certainly felt that slightly more specific definition wasn’t communicated clearly to us, or written into the competition guidance (we have since re-checked this and still don’t feel it is clear enough).
In short, we could and should have tried to work more formally with other organisations on the practical hands-on aspect of performing the study, but we felt the informal approach might fit better with the guidance we had been given. Crucially, while we did connect with a number of organisations that we could have worked with during various briefing events, we didn’t necessarily find exactly the right partners – that, again, was something we hoped to get from the resultant project.
It’s worth also pointing out that despite numerous attempts to connect with automotive trade bodies, the only other forum we could find to network away from the briefing events, we failed to receive any kind of response – even when those bodies are set up with special interest groups and forums.
Good things have come from this, however, and we now run regular, popular, free and open networking meetups around the UK, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s good for business and the community alike.
Plugging the gaps
We were encouraged to apply for the Feasibility Study because it would allow us to investigate and understand the business case, as well as a variety of technical approaches to resolve the problems we had identified and combined into the AVERT project proposal.
And yet, a lack of business plan, route to market or value of exploitable intellectual property were all flagged as weak or missing. The guidance we’d received and had been repeated at every event we had attended was that was the whole point of the Feasibility Study, i.e. to investigate, understand, fill in any gaps, then justify the next steps.
However, this strand of funding (one of four competition streams in this funding competition) provides no opportunity for interim questioning or feedback from assessors. It would have been helpful to have online resources available to help answer questions such as ‘what does a failed application look like’, ‘why do applications fail’, ‘essential things you must understand’, etc. While we knew this before applying, we now feel that it’s actually a vulnerability for a stream which is identified and encouraged to be used by first-time applicants, and perhaps it was wrong for us to think we should go it alone.
By the time we pick ourselves up and consider reapplying, whether or not we’re successful, a further 17 months will have elapsed since we first applied. As a small company with other aspects of business away from research, this is long enough to probably discourage us from seeing any justification to what our business model will be over that timeframe.
Our simple motivation was, to be honest, not driven by a pressing business need for our own company, instead we considered it as an opportunity to develop an additional area of expertise. It is not, and is unlikely to become central to our business model, but from our research and conversations, we felt both projects would have a strong benefit for the connected and autonomous vehicle sector as a while, while providing some much bigger business opportunities for our software and hardware engineering partners. That, we felt, was worth sharing, but it’s another mistake that really is on us and was correctly identified as a weakness in the application.
Research is not our core business, so we had to find and use the data we could to justify the project proposal, including figures from the Department for Transport and the British Horse Society (both their datasets on equestrian injuries and deaths were incomplete, though the BHS’s resources are slim, data gathering both voluntary, complex and acknowledged as very difficult to maintain).
Nobody had done this type of research before, which is why we put this together and applied.
Very little other source data was available, a weakness we also highlighted within our application, however, the problems we identified will remain real and serious, for those that are affected (i.e. people trying to do research into complex edge cases), until they are resolved in perhaps 10 years’ time.
Other weaknesses in the application were identified, from lack of business plan, no plan for exploitation of intellectual property, technical research or desk research, lack of experience, lack of expertise, invalidity of our statements, and so on.
Yet throughout the application, one of the five assessors was robustly in support of the application, writing positively about the clear need for the technology, further research, the approach and understanding of the challenges.
I understand the benefits of having a mixed group of assessors (between 3 and 5 are assigned to each application, but not identifiable), particularly non-expert, to provide a balanced view and response to an application, but I would be interested to know if those assessors saw one-another’s comments, had a chance to collaborate and perform their own investigation, or question why and provide feedback to applicants on certain themes were repeated throughout, particularly if – such as the point on collaborative working – was such a simple and obvious error on our part.
Regrettably, a ‘second chance’ is not something built in to this process.
I take some relief (certainly not pleasure, for failure is a painful necessity) from the fact that successful and innovative applicants in the first round were unsuccessful in the second, and far smarter people than us were also unsuccessful – it’s not personal, our funding application just didn’t meet the mark.
Tips for your application
So here are my tips:
- Use a professional funding-application agency to work with you, ideally one that has worked on that particular funding call or competition
- Make sure the application idea is a natural fit within your business strategy or that you make clear how it will be in the future
- Invest significant time (weeks or months) and significant money if you’re serious about going ahead
- Ask someone who has been through the process – ideally both successfully and unsuccessfully – to read your application
- Start developing your ideas and consortia (your target outcomes and delivery partners) at least 6 months before submitting, these should be finalised at least 2-3 months out
- Ask for clarification of every rule, get it in writing
- Use the feedback to improve future applications
- Link the feedback to the guideline documents to understand how assessors think in that scheme
We are small business, nimble and very successful in other areas. This was a failed experiment that we hope to learn from and by publishing this, hope you could take something from it as well.
We give it to you for free, without prejudice. We don’t apply value to this story or AVERT, but by doing this, I hope you will understand our values instead.