When and why your innovation could be funded

We’ve been to a few events recently, including two that particularly stood out that were organised by the brilliant team in a small and occasionally overlooked organisation called the Knowledge Transfer Network, a unified body (from a previously multi-disciplined 15 organisations) tasked with bringing businesses together at events to share information, learn about new technologies, network and find out about Innovate UK funding calls.

These two events, Quantum Technology in Transport, and Embedded AI, showed not just the admirable variety of technology developers in the UK, from small scale to multi-national, but also highlighted the pivotal role held by funding organisations, notably Innovate UK, to act as a central facilitator and aggravator of investment into the development of new technologies over short, medium and long term.

But how do you define where technology can be used, or trickier still, when an immature technology might make an impact?

This is where a tried and tested measure called the ‘Technology Readiness Level’ can be applied.  This multi-step process, which has slight variants in Space, Energy, Defense and other sectors in the UK, EU and US defines how mature the technology is, and thus whether it would benefit from further investment to help it mature into a viable product that is commercially successful, and eventually return that investment to the investor.

In the case of Innovate UK, the investor is also the taxpayer (that’s you and me), so the commercial success of a product is both an improved tax return to the government within the country, and the potential for an improved export volume from the country, improving the balance of economic advantage.

Technology Readiness Levels

TRL 1. basic principles observed
TRL 2. technology concept formulated
TRL 3. experimental proof of concept
TRL 4. technology validated in lab
TRL 5. technology validated in relevant environment (industrially relevant environment in the case of key enabling technologies)
TRL 6. technology demonstrated in relevant environment (industrially relevant environment in the case of key enabling technologies)
TRL 7. system prototype demonstration in operational environment
TRL 8. system complete and qualified
TRL 9. actual system proven in operational environment (competitive manufacturing in the case of key enabling technologies; or in space)

Innovate UK operates mainly in the areas of TRL 3 to 7, where there’s the greatest difficulty, taking on the mantle from the national research councils – which fund lower levels of research, and the commercial sector (also known as the glory seekers!) taking on the significantly reduced risk of a close-to-perfected product.

One step further away from Innovate UK, lies in the strategy it is required to fulfil, often set a few years beforehand.  So the idea of CAVs (Connected and Autonomous Vehicles) being identified as of real importance in the early 2010s, helped to focus attention on not just one but many different areas that needed to be looked at – not just legislative (road law in the UK is very complex) but also commercial, educational, industrial and societal.

Two of the larger government departments, BEIS and DfT, had a ‘special cuddle’ and out shot CCAV, the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles), sibling to the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, to define a more detailed strategy and make some intelligent investments to start resolving these problem areas.

The large research projects, of which there have been more than 50, have investigated many of these. Since 2014, there have now been three CAV funding rounds, and so far, one separate CAV testbed round. Aligned to those, there have been funding calls for Emerging and Enabling Technologies, AR/VR plus the open innovation calls.  In short, a lot of money has been spent to stimulate further private investment (almost all of it has been match funded by industry 50/50).

Many of these will be coming along to The London Motor Show, and we expect that a few will also be coming along to Self Driving Track Days in July.

There are three more relevant funding rounds this year, including another CAV testbed round and a fourth (and probably final) CAV research round – so there’s still plenty of room for more innovation and research for bold new ideas if you want to find out more and start working in the sector.

Our top tips

  • Sign up to the KTN newsletters (as many as are relevant)
  • Attend some events
  • Read, watch and learn as much as you can!

We have lots of articles, videos and will always try to point you in the right direction, but there’s little better than getting yourself to a real event where engineers are on-hand to give you genuinely exciting and hands-on experience.