Expert Guide to Winning an Innovate UK Smart Grant

UK entrepreneurs: don't let lack of funding hold back your innovative ideas. Find out if your business qualifies for an Innovate UK Smart Grant.

Megan Williams
February 6, 2024

SMEs are an essential part of the UK’s economy.

But in a recent poll of its members, the Federation of Small Businesses found that the biggest obstacle for new and growing businesses is finance, for a resounding 50.6% of respondents.

If you’ve ever struggled to make sense of funding for your business, you’re certainly not alone. Loan finance may make you feel nervous about carrying large amounts of debt while taking on external investors may not appeal either, if you prefer to keep your equity.

Have you considered government-backed grant funding?

Government business grants can be a powerful finance tool for businesses. You don’t lose any equity, and you never have to pay the money back. You might also be surprised at the amount on offer. Imagine what you could do with a five or six figure sum!

The Innovate UK Smart Grant is the UK government’s flagship grant programme. It awards £125 million to British businesses every year, in any industry, for tech or innovation based projects.

At Grantify, we think not enough startups and small business entrepreneurs consider these grants, but we get why. It can be confusing to know where to begin, and the application itself is complex.

In this article, we’re going to share with you how to write a powerful application for a Smart Grant, to boost your chances of success. We help businesses secure grants every week, and we’ve filled out hundreds of applications, so we know what assessors are looking for.

Let’s start with a few basics about the scheme itself.

What are Smart Grants?

Backed by the UK government, Innovate UK is the UK’s innovation agency, part of UK Research and Innovation. Its remit is to help businesses turn innovative ideas into commercially successful products and services, to boost the productivity and economic growth of the UK as a whole.

The Smart Grants scheme is Innovate UK’s main grant programme. Grants are available for tech-based projects, of 6-18 months duration, that offer ‘commercially viable innovative or disruptive ideas’, from any industry, for any part of the economy, from the arts, design and media, to creative industries to science or engineering.

In essence, they want to fund new technology that could help the UK economy grow.

How Much Could I Get?

In theory, you could get up to £2 million. However, that’s more likely to be awarded to multiple businesses collaborating as a single application.

For a first application, we recommend applying for a max £500,000 project. Still a very useful amount!

Who is Eligible?

Any UK-registered SME can apply, working in any industry as long as you are seeking to develop a new, innovative technology.

What are Smart Grants Available For?

In the Innovate UK Smart Grant, and most grants generally, you apply for funding of a tech-based ‘project’. This can include the researching and development of a product or service for rapid commercialisation.

It’s important to understand how Innovate UK classifies projects, as some types are more likely to be funded than others, or more likely to receive higher grant amounts.

There are four project types:

  • Fundamental research: R&D on fundamental scientific principles.
  • Feasibility Studies: deciding whether a project is worth pursuing.
  • Industrial Research: creating innovative technology.
  • Experimental Design: creating innovative products.

We strongly recommend for the Innovate Smart Grant that you ensure that the majority of your project is industrial research. Industrial research is the most relevant to the grant’s goals and has the most lucrative funding.

The Smart Grant Application Process

The good news is that the application is all done online, via the site, with no in-person interviews to attend.

The less-good news is the length and detail of the application itself. There’s no sugarcoating it – you’ll have to complete a long list of questions, as well as several appendices and spreadsheets. You’ll need to supply detailed information about your project, including:

  • The size and scale of the market opportunity, with supporting evidence.
  • A team structure, with bios for everyone, including subcontractors.
  • A competitor index.
  • A comprehensive risk register.
  • A thorough technical spec for your solution.
  • A well-thought out project management plan, with timescales and dependencies.
  • A cost breakdown for all elements of your project, from salaries to expenses.

Innovate assigns five reviewers to each application, with highly-specific marking criteria that requires a lot of specifically-structured information. The application itself comes in at around 7,000 words. We’ve had former clients take 6-8 weeks to complete it, with numerous redrafts.

Don’t be put off – we’ve edited hundreds of these applications so we know the difference between a great one and one that’s going to need hours of editing and rewriting.

What Do Winning Applications Have in Common?

We asked our expert team of application reviewers and assessors for their insights for first-time applicants. A few key points emerged:

Identifying a Clear, Unmet Need

This might sound obvious but you’d be surprised how frequently we have to direct applicants to focus on the need they are addressing. It’s so tempting to get into the details of the solution upfront, but Innovate UK’s assessors are looking to understand what the need for your solution is. How big is this need and can you prove it exists? Why hasn’t it been met yet? Who is it a problem for? You must articulate all of this clearly at the beginning of your application.

Stick to the Problem

Once you’ve articulated your need, make sure all of your answers are cohesive throughout the application. It needs to be extremely clear what the problem is, how you are solving it, and what the market for solving this need is. People often mention multiple problems and markets, and due to the restrictive word counts, their application can drift and become less compelling. Keep that focus all the way through.

Create a Compelling Narrative

The best applications all have a strong and compelling narrative throughout the application. The need, the solution and the technology are all important, but can you bring them together in a story that will help the assessors to visualise the impact your solution could have? The best applications we’ve seen do just that. Many people underestimate the impact of well-written, thoughtful content in their application, but it can be the difference between securing your funding – or not.

Start Your Winning Application Today

Innovate UK Smart Grants could be the perfect financial vehicle to help put your innovation into the hands of the people who need it.

We’ve been fortunate enough to help a lot of great companies receive funding. Some personal highlights for me are applications for innovations dealing with restoring eyesight to those hard of sight, reducing waste in the fashion industry, and cancer research. It’s a wonderful reminder of the impact these grants can have – Luke Westergreen-Thorne, Grantify co-founder

Understandably however, you may feel nervous about your ability to write a polished application or your ability to commit weeks to doing so, with all your other obligations.

That’s where Grantify can help.

Don’t Leave It Up To Chance

By far the best example of a project submission that I have seen in a while under this or any other competition — Innovate UK Examiner, 2020

We know exactly what the examiners are looking for, and we understand every aspect of the application process. Not only have we successfully applied for a Smart Grant ourselves, but we spend all day, every day immersed in helping our clients write successful applications.

We break the application down into simple sections and everything is contained within our unique application portal. All documents are templated and optimised to save you time and make your application as compelling as possible.

Our Smart Grant service can cut your application time down to less than a week, not to mention Grantify applicants are seven times more likely to succeed than the industry average.

We’re so sure we can help that if you don’t get funded the first time around, we’ll help with your second application for free.

Feeling Inspired?

Take our 90 second qualification quiz and find out if your business can grab an Innovate UK Smart Grant today!

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