Tips on winning Innovate UK grant funding

Roheet Shah MBA2015 and Adam Hearne MBA2015, founders of CarbonChain, share tips on how to successfully seek funding from Innovate UK grants.

Like most start-ups, when we launched CarbonChain in 2017 one of our major challenges was how to secure funding to develop our technology and grow our business. While we initially explored the “traditional” fundraising options (i.e., angels, VCs, crowdfunding, etc), we soon learned — thanks to an information session organized by the London Business School Incubator — about a UK specific funding opportunity that we had not considered: equity free grant funding from Innovate UK.

Innovate UK is the UK government’s innovation agency, and the main channel by which the government funds science and technology innovations to grow the UK economy and keep the UK globally competitive. Innovate UK supports UK companies of any size and runs competitions across specific priority areas as well as a quarterly open call for applications known as Smart Grants.

CarbonChain has been fortunate to benefit from Innovate UK support, having received £460,000 in grant funding via 3 separate grants since 2018. The funding we received de-risked our technology development process and allowed us to grow our business to a full time team of 7.

Tips that we can share from our experience applying for InnovateUK grant applications would be:

  1. Find the right competition: Innovate UK is constantly announcing new competitions, and it is important to find the right competition for your company to apply to, as the more closely aligned your idea is to the competition scope, the higher scores you can achieve for the marking criteria. Our first successful grant was for a feasibility study in a competition that was exclusively focused on our technology area and sectors, providing us with a compelling case as to why our application should be funded.
  2. Start small: While it can be tempting to apply for the largest grant possible for, it is easier to start with smaller grant sizes as they are easier to win, especially for early stage start-ups. If your project is successful at proving a market need, use that evidence to apply for larger and larger grants to support your business’ journey.
  3. Leverage Innovate UK resources: When we first applied for an Innovate UK grant, we were not aware that a lot of free-to-access resources are available to companies looking to secure funding. Innovate UK and its partner Knowledge Transfer Network help companies understand if their application idea satisfies competition scope, as well as providing high level feedback on applications and briefing sessions on what the applications are looking for. Innovate UK’s Catapult Network helps connect businesses with academic & research institutions to commercialize new technologies that can be beneficial for your application and/or business.  
  4. Play to your strengths: We were first-time founders when we applied to Innovate UK, and unsure how much to talk about our prior corporate backgrounds in our applications as we weren’t sure how relevant they would be. However, after talking to Innovate UK representatives, we learned that they were OK to support technical risk (i.e., the uncertainty surrounding new technologies), but not commercial risks. It turned out that our backgrounds of developing strategies, managing projects, and running business units, combined with our LBS degrees, was a great signal to our ability to manage commercial risks. 
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Our first attempt at applying for an Innovate UK grant did not go well. After spending a lot of time writing the application (more on this below) and submitting just before the deadline, we were rejected because we misunderstood the instructions on how to display the project budget. After relaying our sad tale at one of our LBS Incubator check-ins, we got an introduction to a company that specialized in writing Innovate UK grants from Jane Khedair, the director of the LBS Incubator. For £1000, this company reviewed our application twice (including once with a former Innovate UK assessor) and helped tighten our application into the format that Innovate UK likes to see. That application went on to win a £100,000 grant, which we thought was a pretty decent return on investment!

Our final piece of advice would be don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to write a good application! Even with the support of a grant-writing company, we spent a full week (if not more) writing, editing, editing more, and then editing even more. Each application has been a significant effort, but the reward of equity free grant funding to research and develop our technology has been well worth the effort! 

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About the Authors: Roheet Shah MBA2015 is Chief Operating Officer & Adam Hearne 2015 is Chief Executive Officer of Carbon Chain. They were part of the LBS Incubator’s 2017 cohort.