Governments around the world have spent eye watering sums of money in response to the Covid pandemic but it seems that many of the schemes have not been delivered efficiently.

This 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. 

Now, it seems that the UK government is again at risk of burning £40million in a half-hearted response to Covid’s devastation. Last year, 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”.

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. It identified close to a 1000 (956) projects, each of which received funding to deliver solutions to help deal with the corona virus outbreak, 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.  

The problem now is that six months after the projects were supposed to have been completed, no word has been heard about it again. Following the initial closing date for the project, 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.

Before publishing this investigative piece entitled: Disarming innovation, UK Innovate – Inefficiency could burn 40 million pounds, TFS circulated it to the Communications and Public Engagement team at UK Research and Innovation for comment. This is what they said: 

“Evaluation of the impact of this investment is very important to us. All projects were monitored during delivery and we are continuing to collate initial feedback from businesses as they complete their projects. Early findings are very positive, for example 89% stated the funding allowed them to continue innovation activity and 94% stated it enabled them to start new innovation projects (please see below for a summary of findings).”

They then proceeded to share some statistics as follows: 

Summary of initial findings from businesses  –  80% of funded businesses have completed a project completion form so far, of which:

  • 96% stated that they have delivered all or most of the project outcomes described in their application
  • 89% stated the funding allowed them to continue innovation activity
  • 89% stated it enabled them to maintain and safeguard staff
  • 94% stated it enabled them to start new innovation projects
  • 80% stated it enabled them to develop a new business plan/strategy
  • 80% stated it enabled the business to be in a better position to raise further funds
  • When asked what would’ve happened in the absence of funding:
  • 75% said that innovation activity would have stopped completely or continued at a slower rate.
  • When asked how the business was planning to exploit the outputs form the project:
  • 80% stated they were developing a new or improved product

 Impact examples from the FastStart programme:

  • With support from our FastStart programme, Fernhay responded with an updated electric assist, emission free eQuad now in production and sales with customers like UPS. Designed and built in the UK, Fernhay is exporting the eQuad to the EU and hopes to be on every delivery network in the world.
  • Curtain Call developed a talent-booking marketplace using a unique matching algorithm to connect creative and technical freelancers with work opportunities. With Innovate UK support, Curtain Call increased headcount, secured follow-up funding and further developed their platform, which is set to become even more successful post-pandemic.

From a Future Shaper perspective we think that the feedback still demonstrate that not much information is available and that it is hard for Innovate UK to answer on the success of this funding programme. 

We recognise the strong feedback numbers from the grants recipients (which to our mind would be expected as they received funds).  The challenge our story was highlighting was the governance controls used to determine the appropriateness of the firms, not just the ideas. Our investigations also flagged up instances of entities that received monies that were not in existence at the time of the competition.

We’d also say that, however positive the numbers, we are struggling to see how this correlates to the actual brief of the competition to fast track innovation prototypes to deliver solutions to stop / mitigate the impact of Covid.  If the argument is that the grants provided economic activity benefits (which a number of the measures infers) we wonder how the programme differs from the Government’s Bounceback loan scheme.

TFS commits to fully disclose and publish all responses received in relation to the publication of this story and will update this page with the relevant information as and when appropriate. 

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