Inefficiency could burn £40million pounds

Innovation is crucial for progress, resilience and finding new ways of working, especially in times of crises. The global coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the need for novel solutions to address urgent problems more fiercely than we ever could have imagined. 

Governments around the world have spent eye watering sums of money in response to the Covid pandemic. Here in the UK, according to the ONS government net borrowing is over £300 bn. It seems that many of the schemes have not been delivered efficiently and it has a devastating effect on not only the development and delivery of much needed solutions, it is also tainting reputations and trust in government bodies to execute effectively when innovation is needed most. 

A good example is the recent case by the good law project where the Court found that a decision to award an £560,000 contract to Public First, friends and allies of those in power, was unlawful and tainted by “apparent bias”. It seems that in many instances government contracts are being awarded to mates, cronyism is rampant and procurement processes are being disregarded almost as a matter of fact. 

Another example of wasted resources and very little output from an important project – especially in the context of the current pandemic, is Exercise Cygnus. Public dissatisfaction on how it was managed and no correlation or connection with intended outcomes and what was eventually reported, severely diminished it’s value and impact. A part of government policy, particularly innovation should be establishing and enabling preparedness for pandemics and government health crises. 

Yet, it seems that the UK government is again at risk of burning £40million in a half-hearted response to Covid’s devastation. The debilitating effect of the pandemic on economies, health systems and livelihoods the world over requires immediate solutions. What is needed is  robust, rapid responses that can help economies effectively deal with and protect livelihoods, not only today but also into the future, but like we have seen so many times before, it seems that great intentions often get overshadowed by gross inefficiency. 

The example is a business-led innovation initiative in response to global disruption and a funding competition by Innovate UK, the United Kingdom’s innovation agency part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. UK Innovate prides itself in driving productivity and economic growth by supporting businesses to develop and realise the potential of new ideas, including those from the UK’s world-class research base.

In April 2020, UK Innovate launched a competition called the “Fast Start Competition” to rapidly address the destructive effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Funding rapid innovation projects to demonstrate significant benefits

The aim of the competition was to support UK businesses to focus on emerging or increasing needs of society and industries during and following the Covid-19 pandemic. The rationale according to the website stated that “by fast-tracking innovation, the UK will be better placed to maintain employment levels, a competitive position in global markets and make the UK more resilient to similar disruption”. Applications had to demonstrate both realistic and significant benefits for society (including communities, families and individuals) or an industry that has been severely impacted and/or permanently disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. It also had to focus on a clear need and a proposed innovation to address it. 

The competition made available £20 million to fund innovation projects and each organisation could apply for up to £50,000 within de minimis limits. According to the competition, a 100% of project costs could be claimed up to the maximum value of £50,000 that would be paid in advance of the project start date and projects would be monitored and reviewed during implementation with a view to providing follow-on funding and support for those with the most potential for impact. 

Projects had to:

  • have total eligible costs between £25,000 and £50,000
  • be able to start by 1st June 2020 at the latest
  • be no longer than 6 months in duration

The lead organisation also had to: 

  • be a UK registered business of any size
  • carry out its project work in the UK
  • intend to deliver the proposed outcomes for UK domestic or global benefit

Applications were requested in a wide selection of themes that tackled new or emerging societal or industry needs and had to demonstrate:

  • a clearly innovative and ambitious idea, which would realistically and significantly meet a societal need that has emerged or increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic or the need of an industry that has been severely impacted and/or permanently disrupted
  • that the project could be successfully delivered on time during the working restrictions of Covid-19
  • the ability to start the project no later than June 2020
  • value for money

This competition was launched in April 2020 and expectations were that all the projects would begin by June 2020 and will last up to 6 months, with products and services expected to be available to the public towards the end of the 2020 year. Then in May 2020, shortly before project commencement, a further exciting announcement was made that the UK government is doubling investment in the Fast Start Competition with an additional £20 million, which meant that the total investment for the project now stood at £40 million.

Intent versus outcome

It was clear that the intention of the Fast Start competition was as stated: for government to boost and build resilience in the UK economy, helping to protect against long-term impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, and that a fast way to do it was to enable capable technology and R&D businesses to develop innovations that encourage new ways of working at a time when it was needed most. The trouble with this project it seems, like so many other efforts carrying the innovation label, was the practicalities of implementation. 

Innovation at its core refers to a new idea that gets implemented to create value. When new ideas do not get to market to deliver the value that was intended by its creation, the conversation has to point to inherent obstacles that often surface in the form of mismanagement. Innovation without the proper building blocks of planning, execution and monitoring – in other words, without getting to market to ascertain its impact and value, become textbook examples of wasted time, effort and expenditure. Especially if one considers that this competition identified close to a 1000 (956) projects, each of which received funding to deliver solutions to help deal with the corona virus outbreak. A pandemic that seems at this very moment in time relentless in its approach and hitting with more ferocity wave after wave. Solutions are crucial yet, the targeted intervention of the UK government to make a difference with substantial grant funding to promising SME’s has nothing to show a good seven months after its initial projected project close.  

Asking the hard questions

Following the initial closing date for the project towards the end of 2020, The Future Shapers requested information on the project output in November 2020. Feedback at the time insinuated a delay in “the project set-up stage” and specifically stated that “no data would be made available before all of the allocated projects have been completed”. The response also iterated that specific project outcomes, including grant amounts allocated, were viewed as exempt from public disclosure under Section 22(1) of the FOIA as it was in any event intended for publication at a later date. 

According to the response received from a spokesperson at UK Research and Innovation:

The same letter also stated that information will be made available in March 2021:

It has effectively been five months since the last stated deadline of March 2021 by the Department, and still no data, update on progress or amended information has been released to the public on the project. 

The intent of the project was clear, “to respond to new and urgent needs in UK and global communities during and following the Covid-19 pandemic” while it was explicitly stated that projects funded had to be no longer than 6 months in duration.

At a glance – Interesting and much needed solutions must get to market

The Future Shapers noticed some interesting projects (and some irregularities) by superficially and randomly looking at just three of the company projects who were recipients of the Fast Start Competition grants. All projects were expected to be executed between June to November 2020. 

The first was Localgiving Ltd, who received £49 144 for work to be executed linked to charity organisations and volunteering work. 

According to the application Localgiving is a charity and company that employ 16 people to deliver their core programmes and work towards its charitable objectives, but at companies house it seems, the company categorise themselves not as charity, but as an organisation focusing on: 

63110 – Data processing, hosting and related activities

64999 – Financial intermediation not elsewhere classified

73110 – Advertising agencies

The company nevertheless received funding for launching a new remote volunteering skills matching app. According to their application: 

The tool uses natural language processing to link volunteers to projects where they can usefully contribute their skills remotely in areas of the UK that are sentimental to them and their family.

Charities and groups providing frontline services to local communities will be able to post short and long-term volunteer opportunities, from logo redesigns to the delivery of a crowdfunding campaign.

A project that if managed and executed well can make a difference to many at a time where time is really of the essence. Another project funded by the UK Innovate Fast Start Competition was leveraging Artificial Intelligence and computer vision to deliver surgery at scale in a Post-COVID-19 world. ANother project that has the potential to create phenomenal impact. The project was submitted by Future Health Works Ltd, and it received £47,500 in funds towards its successful execution. The project was detailed as follows: 

COVID-19 has placed our healthcare services under extraordinary pressure. The decision to prioritise hospital capacity for COVID-19 and cancel planned surgery, to free up crucial resources, is the only option under these circumstances. However, this decision will have lasting consequences for both our society and healthcare system; 2.1+ million patients have had their surgery canceled, and with  waiting lists already long these new, added cancellations will create an unprecedented burden, lasting years beyond the outbreak of COVID-19, with Patients potentially waiting years for treatment, with limited access to the support they need.

We have developed technology using computer vision AI that can be remotely accessed through a smartphone camera. This independently-validated technology can provide clinical teams with the information they need to carry out assessments of joint function remotely. We propose to productise this technology through our mature, established digital orthopaedic patient engagement platform, that is already deployed within leading orthopaedic centres in the UK (NHS & Private), to deliver an end-to-end solution to remotely manage patients and enable widespread adoption. This proprietary, first-of-a-kind technology will provide immediate benefits to patients who are currently awaiting surgery without an operation date, whilst supporting healthcare providers deliver orthopaedic surgery at greater scale and protecting at-risk patients from COVID-19. This technology will contribute to potential productivity gains of £120+ million per annum in the NHS by reducing the length of in-patient stay from 3 nights to 1 night for 40% of annual joint replacement procedures (200,000) and a further £12.5+ million by moving 10% of the 7.8 million of NHS trauma and orthopaedic outpatient clinics to virtual.

A third application that received a £49,930 grant for execution was submitted by Applied Nanodetectors Limited. It positioned a lung function device to aid COVID-19 management in care homes, an application that if executed well can drive value to the elderly and others. According to their application: 

“The COVID-19 pandemic raises particular challenges for the 400,000 UK care home residents, their families and the key staff that look after them. Recent guidance from the British Geriatric Society has been developed to help care home staff and NHS staff who work with them to support residents through the pandemic. This guidance recommends that where possible, care home staff should be trained and equipped to measure vital signs including temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, pulse oximetry and respiratory rate. This will enable external healthcare practitioners to triage and prioritise support of residents according to need.

The company aimed to develop a simple, low cost, portable device to monitor the essential vital signs providing useful actionable measurements in a few minutes. This device has direct relevance in the current COVID-19 crisis where it can be used alongside other front-line care solutions to identify and monitor people at risk of respiratory problems. It would be designed to be easy to use for care home staff. This new solution would protect them, and the people they care for, improving their quality of life and help them live longer. The device, which could be directly utilised in care homes and community settings works by monitoring the lung function allowing very early indications of any abnormalities and also the progression of illness — directly relevant in COVID-19, but with broader healthcare application beyond the current crisis.”

From the above it is clear that the competition drew plenty of interesting submissions and some potential valuable solutions that were all pitched specifically due their potential to get to market within six months. When no data is released whatsoever almost a year later and vague answers are given by the funding body responsible, concerns have to be raised on various levels. 

Innovation is inherently risky and non-conformist

Innovation by its nature cannot be tied down to project timelines, investment amounts or in this case the grant recipients who got allocated funds to find urgent solutions. Innovation also cannot be divorced from risk or failure and overrunning planned project timelines. It is however fair to say that when public funding is allocated for public good and urgent innovation is required to save lives and industries – in other words to serve public interest, an equal amount of urgency is required to drive the intended outcomes, monitor output and provide feedback on progress. Especially in the face of a project that seemed to have missed its original intent and now its own stated deadlines of delivery twice in a row. 

The Future Shapers are always in support of innovation and progressive change but we believe that the delivery institutions (government or otherwise) need to be held to account for their performance as at the end of the day we all end up paying.

A copy of this story was sent to the Communications and Public Engagement team at UK Research and Innovation prior to publication and we did subsequently receive a response from them with some high-level information. We will publish this full response in our update tomorrow, on 22 July 2021.

Being passionate about innovation and seeing it deliver the results it should, The Future Shapers will keep an eye on this story and will make an honest attempt to update it with relevant information when it becomes available.  

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