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Comment: fast-tracking SME automotive innovation

As the Prime Minister pledges to "build back greener" after the pandemic, how do we give the next generation of innovative technologies the best platform to succeed?

Josh Denne, Head of SME Programmes at the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), lifts the curtain on its Technology Development Accelerator Programme, and explains why it takes more than funding to help advanced technologies get to market.

Whether it's the penicillin growing in Alexander Fleming's abandoned petri dish, or Google springing out of a sweaty student garage, there's always been a certain mythology around how new, game-changing ideas come into the world.

It can feel a lonely, perilous existence working at the forefront of new ideas

The reality, as all hardened entrepreneurs know, is often less romantic than we might think. Successful technology businesses rarely emerge from sudden, unstoppable bursts of creative genius alone. The journey from good idea to viable business model is long, complex and littered with failures.

Crucially too, the people blessed with outstanding ideas often don’t  have the access to the specialist commercial knowledge and expertise to find the right way forward. It can feel a lonely, perilous existence working at the forefront of new ideas.

At the APC we believe any industry wanting to encourage effective and marketable innovation must provide more than funding, essential though that is. Developers also need practical advice, skills and mentorship to find a viable path to commercialisation.

That is what inspires the dedicated programme we run for innovators in the automotive sector, which we hope will incubate the technologies needed to project us towards a zero-carbon future.

Now in its 5th year,  the Technology Developer Accelerator Programme (TDAP) has always been about much more than seed-stage grant-funding good ideas.

We do provide this kind of funding, of course - in fact, since launch TDAP has provided more than £5 million to 31 promising, low emission technology projects. But the programme offers far more.

By linking technology developers with a range of industry experts – or as we call them Delivery Partners - our aim is to provide successful applicants with a systematic, phased approach to building their business - a 360 degree programme of support to help great ideas flourish in a commercial space.

So what does the support of our Delivery Partners look like in practice?

Beyond patents: protecting your intellectual property

From the outset the APC recognises that not all applicants will be at patent stage, but all will need to quantify and protect the value of their intellectual property (IP) as early as possible.

While most people developing new technologies have some understanding of IP,  many have not completely considered the full commercial and financial implications; including its potential role in providing income, raising finance or its overall value as an important asset.

By partnering with IP experts Inngot, TDAP offers technology developers in-depth advice and support, taking them through the whole process of identifying what IP and related intangible knowledge-based assets they have, how they can better strengthen and protect them, and how much they might be worth in relation to accessing investment or bank funding, or for licensing purposes.  Some knowledge-based assets, like patents and trademarks, are obvious; but there are many others, such as the skills, experience and know-how within the team, which are more difficult to identify and quantify.

Inngot also works with the TDs to review the IP owned by potential competitors, enabling them to analyse their strengths and weaknesses and develop a strategic plan to exploit their advantages. It also looks at how much their technology could be worth, linking them to further legal and professional support as required.

From the outset, the aim is to ensure developers get the expertise to make sure their greatest asset - their own ideas and expertise - is properly protected, valued and integrated into their future business strategy.

Commercialising and identifying market focus

Translating a technology concept into a solid commercial proposition is a significant challenge. Through TDAP, our SMEs work with E4tech, a boutique strategic consultancy specialising in sustainable energy and transport.

E4tech offers a bespoke service looking specifically at the market application of each technology: what problem does it solve? What technical need will it meet? Working in close partnership with the developer, E4tech helps define a value proposition and a pathway to break into the chosen markets.

This is a critical phase as it's often the point when the concept starts to get meaningful external feedback about commercial realities. It can be a bumpy ride, but through a focused approach on promising applications, TDAP allows companies to significantly reduce their commercial risks. To enable this, each developer works with a dedicated E4tech team member, supported by data, a broad network of contacts and market analysis.

At end of this process, developers go through a 'gateway' assessment to see if their proposition is strong enough to move onto the next stage of the programme, this allows us to ensure that our support and funding is focused on the best, commercially viable, concepts.

Making it happen – new product development & manufacture

The final stage supports SMEs to move from conceptual design to, at a minimum, a fully proven concept. Additionally, many TDAP developers use the programme to help plan for initial volume production, market validation and - ultimately - commercial sales.

Many promising innovations stumble when taking the final leap from concept development to full commercialisation

For this, TDAP participants work with Productiv, a low carbon engineering product development company which helps small and nascent enterprises plan their product development and become industry-ready.

Many promising innovations stumble when taking the final leap from concept development to full commercialisation. But Productiv ensures TDAP participants have a sharp focus on what it takes to deliver in the real world - from cost analysis, and supply chain management, to assembly, verification and market and industry validation.

With Productiv’s help, the technology developers cover off initial aspects of manufacturing, supply chain, compliance and engineering support, providing them with a complete roadmap for manufacturing their product.

Championing your success

Ultimately, the impact of TDAP is measured by the progress made by its participants.

It is reflected in stories of companies like New Motion Labs, which produces a system known as Link Drive that could reshape the way power transmission systems work in future.

It has moved from a one-man band to ambitious start-up company with seven UK employees and a working prototype of its technology - all as a result of participating in the programme.

As its founder Marcel Fowler says, "Having a good idea is only a fraction of what makes a business. The experts helped us to understand how we could build a business around that and progress towards commercialisation."

New Motion Labs is just one of many success stories, but it perfectly encapsulates what TDAP is all about: industry experts working hand-in-hand with brilliant developers and inventors to ensure their creative inspiration is met with the practical support necessary to create a competitive, sustainable business.

Of course, the next generation of ground-breaking technology development may quietly be taking place in cramped garages or incubating in laboratories, just as they have before.

But through TDAP, we're making it our responsibility to ensure these moments of genius get the best possible opportunity to succeed - not just by signing off on funding, but by supporting, nurturing and advising them every step of the way.

To find out more about how you can apply for TDAP funding visit:

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