I’m no longer from government but I’m still (apparently) here to help you!
30 July 2014 by David Bott
Since leaving the Technology Strategy Board, the most common question I get asked is for “the secret” of getting funded by them. In truth the answer is the same for getting any funding – you need to convince the person or organisation with the money that you can make a real impact – and a lot of money – from their investment/loan/grant. Given that when I worked for the TSB, I spent a lot of time trying to explain just this point, I find it slightly bizarre that I am now apparently more likely to give a useful answer! However, I have realised – now I am on the outside – that the message we tried so hard to put out is not as well disseminated as it needs to be if the organisation is to deliver its intended outcomes. So here are my suggestions….
1. Know your potential funder
The first thing I think is important is to understand what the funder is trying to achieve. In the case of the Technology Strategy Board it is to move ideas quicker and more effectively from concept to commercialisation. If your goal is the same, then getting support is more straightforward than if you just want money and are applying for a grant because you think it’s easier than getting angel or venture capital funding or borrowing from a bank.
The road from concept to commercialisation is neither linear nor smooth but, for simplicity, the TSB have divided it into three sections.
a) The early stage funding (which goes up to about £250k) is to build and evaluate the commercial case. The Smart Awards are responsive – which means you can put in any potentially commercial idea, but you only get the money, but the Feasibility Studies are aligned with the thematic priorities and can therefore give you a view of the community roadmap and connections to others up and down the relevant supply chains to help you move faster. b) Collaborative Research and Development Awards (which can run into several millions) are designed to support you through the heavy lifting part of development. They help you work with universities (to strengthen your understanding of the fundamental science that underpins your product) or other companies (that can supply components or help you with access to the market). The competitions in these areas are the result of long-term consultation that is regularly published as “strategies” so you can see what is going on and what the roadmap in the area is. c) Demonstrators are to help validate the commercial potential of the idea. They usually involve getting very close to putting products into the market (examples include putting low carbon vehicles on the road, building low impact housing or carrying out first stage in human trials for new diagnostics and therapies). The idea is that projects successful at this stage will easily get equity or debt funding and move smoothly into the commercial world.
2. Try not to ask for money cold
If the first interaction you have with a funder is to ask for money, the odds are pretty low you’ll get it. For most angels and venture capitalists, a personal introduction is the best way in. It establishes your credibility. Similarly, I think it is important to realise that sending in your proposal should not be the first step in your engagement with the Technology Strategy Board. As I have already hinted, the thematic area strategies are developed in consultation with the community. Competitions are designed to address unmet needs in that area. If you are plugged into this process, you will know what is coming and when. Competitions are signalled to the community both in the individual thematic area strategies and the annual Delivery Plan, which is targeted for publication at the beginning of the financial year but usually suffers from political interference and comes out late. This should enable companies and groups of companies to plan their proposals rather than working at the last minute and applying with 5 minutes to spare! There are also often “consortium building workshops” in the months running up to the competition.
3. Understand their processes
Next, you need to understand the process the funder uses to decide if you get the money. In the case of the Technology Strategy Board, it is competitive, and has changed little from the old LINK Programme process it was adapted from almost 10 years ago. In common with many VC companies and Angels, there are 3 strategic questions they ask – market size/commercial potential, capability to deliver, and timing – but being from government they also ask about additionality. The process downplays the timing issue and adds a number of tactical questions – exploitation route, economic impact, project management, risks and background finance – that, in my view wrongly, have equal rating in the assessment process.
Having read a number of proposals (both successful and unsuccessful) over the years, the best advice I can give is “answer the questions!” In unsuccessful proposals I have often seen what look like large slices of cut and pasted text (presumably from other documents) that do not answer the question. The questions are designed to bring out the important aspects of the proposals in a manner than enable them to be compared with other proposals. If you don't answer the questions clearly and succinctly, then those who do will profit from your inattention to detail!
In 2 stage competitions, the first stage is designed to triage the applications. Despite the growth of the Technology Strategy Board budget since it inception in 2007, there is never enough money to support all the applications, so a simpler first stage cuts down the number of entries to roughly twice as much as they can afford to fund and lowers the workload for those who are unsuccessful. In single stage competitions (Smart and Feasibility Studies) the “success rate” is sometimes as low as 20% so it is really important to express the answers to the main question with clarity and brevity.
4. Tell a story – clearly!
In all cases it is important to make the case clear and compelling. For Technology Strategy Board grants, each proposal is seen by 3 or 5 assessors. The assessors in the thematic areas are usually from the area and can therefore be assumed to be familiar with the area. Although every effort is made to ensure Smart assessors are well versed in the subject of the proposal, it is not always possible and so it is doubly important in Smart proposals not to make assumptions or use too much jargon or too many area specific acronyms!
Either way, they see a fair number of proposals. It has been my experience that those proposals that tell a story, joining up the questions into a consistent and compelling narrative invariably score well. I often used to advise potential applicants to practice explaining why what they were doing was exciting to their friends in a social setting – if it caught their interest, then write that way of explaining it down!
Proposals that start with a different (but well reasoned) view of the market they are addressing start with an advantage – they have piqued the assessors’ interest! If then the answer to question 8 (capability) follows on from the market needs raised in question 1 (market need), the assessor will recognise the integrated nature of the proposal. Perhaps the most important answer is to question 10 (additionality) – since it goes to the heart of why a government would support the development of a new product.
5. Listen to the feedback
A large number of requests for funding are unsuccessful. It is in the nature of the process. It is vital to try to learn why it wasn’t successful and address the reason before you apply again. As an “innovation agency” rather than a funding agency, it is important that the Technology Strategy Board provides more than money, but inevitably, most companies seem to focus on the competitions. Perhaps the most divisive issue I have found “on the outside” is the feedback unsuccessful applicants get. The situation is that the assessors operate independently of one another, and although proposals around the cut-off line for funding do often get discussed to ensure decisions are fair, others do not and so the feedback can appear uncorrelated and even contradictory. Although assessors try hard to understand the proposal, if it is unclear, laden with jargon and acronyms and quantitatively inconsistent it may be that they interpret it in different ways and therefore give very different feedback. What I have discovered unsuccessful applicants find difficult is that no-one gives them an overview of the feedback and prioritises it, so that a re-submission can benefit from the experience of the first proposal.
My experience of being part of the Technology Strategy Board is that they are trying hard to support the most promising proposals that can lead to economic growth for the UK and justify their use of taxpayers money. Understanding why they do what they do and how they do it can help make the whole process more effective and answering the questions is a must! And the same basic requirements apply when seeking most forms of funding. Should we be surprised?