Lien Ngo, Innovate UK's Innovation Lead for Advanced Materials, on the benefits of A4i and taking a problem focused approach.
At Innovate UK, we are used to investing in companies exploiting new technologies to develop brilliant new products. Part of our goal is to help businesses grow bigger and faster, but we haven’t spent as much time and energy on existing products.
How much could those businesses grow if we could harness innovation to improve their current products; to improve reliability and reduce rejection rates; to improve the manufacturing speed or reduce manufacturing costs; to expand markets by proving performance in new specifications?
Analysis for Innovators programme
Analysis for Innovators (A4I) is a programme doing exactly that. It provides businesses with access to experts and equipment in laboratories recognised worldwide for analysis and measurement. In previous rounds, we’ve:
- reduced the need to re-work and scrap turbine parts by improving the model used to ensure the blades meet specifications
- improved the quality testing of coconut yogurt by developing an automated method to test raw material rancidity, rather than a human taste test
- enabled mass production of a point-of-care diagnostics platform by examining and pinpointing problems in the printing of the electrodes in the devices
- revolutionised medical imaging by improving the consistency of x-ray emitters
A4I has just opened Round 5. It is a completely different beast to our standard competitions.
Firstly, as I noted above, it is aimed at improving the competitiveness and productivity of a company by focusing on a problem with an existing product, process, or service. It is not for new product development, R&D proofs of principle or demonstrators.
Secondly, the initial application has just three questions and a task:
- introduce your company and your problem
- tell us what you’ve already tried to solve the problem
- tell us how much it’s worth to your company to solve the problem
- make a 3-minute video describing your problem
A problem-focused approach
It’s problem focused. We’re just asking for the problem that is keeping your company from making as much money as you could be from your product; we’re not asking you for the solution. That’s where our A4I partners come in. They are:
- the National Physical Laboratory
- the National Measurement Laboratory at LGC
- the National Engineering Laboratory
- the Science and Technologies Facilities Council
The third way that A4I is different to our normal competitions is that this initial application is sent to scientists, engineers and technical experts amongst those four analysis partners. These experts are chosen to match the kinds of problems described in the applications.
So, with just a video and short answers to three questions, you’ve ensured your problem will be considered by an expert in the field from one of the UK’s world-renowned analysis and measurement laboratories. If the experts feel there is value in further discussion, we will then invite the company to attend our brokerage event.
The technical experts will provide comments and advice but, most importantly, they are incredibly good sports and willing to do whatever they can to help out.
So, for the last A4I round, every single applicant who was eligible and in scope was invited to meet with experts from one or more of our partners at a massive, four-day brokerage event in London.
Cheapest expert consultancy ever
To build on what I said earlier, then: with just a video and short answers to three questions, the applicants in Round 4 had 90 minutes of time with one or more scientists, engineers and technical experts from globally-recognised government-funded laboratories.
It may be the cheapest expert consultancy ever. Many companies met with more than one of the four A4I partners, and many partners sent more than one technical expert to the brokerage discussions with companies.
The return on investment from that short application is better than anything I’ve seen yet.
Guidance and solutions
At the brokerage events, sometimes the experts point to an off-the-shelf solution or possible solutions in the literature which the companies were unaware of- after all, you may be an expert in your business, but you are probably not an expert in specialist measurement and analysis techniques and equipment.
For this reason, this is the programme I most wish existed when I was working in SMEs trying to commercialise novel materials.
Sometimes, the experts agree that a novel solution needs to be developed and can help the company figure out a way to develop it.
This may involve a project with the A4I partner and company as collaborators. If this is the case, they are invited to apply to the A4I programme for project funding.
Want to apply?
Round 5 of A4I opens on the 29th of July. Ahead of this, we have roadshows around the UK explaining the programme and introducing the partners and their specific expertise areas. We will also announce new brokerage partners so we can offer help and advice from experts in expanded subject areas.
At least one of the roadshows will be local to you- please come along and see if your problem is something we can help with.
The original blog post can be found here.