Searching for inspiration

The TSB’s Small Business Research Initiative can open up the public sector and government to some unlikely partners

I am constantly interested  to hear how some of the most innovative ideas and solutions to particular problems or challenges often come from outside of  that sector. At the Technology Strategy Board we are proud of the long list of dynamic and sometimes unlikely partnerships that we have brought together  to undertake a new business journey together.

Our SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) programme is a wonderful example of opening up a problem or challenge faced by the public sector or government to a whole range of businesses — many of whom would never otherwise have the opportunity to gain a publicly funded development contract. It is an essential and proven element of our extensive toolkit and a key programme in our goal of driving innovation. SBRI also offers a truly great commercial opportunity to companies — first, to demonstrate the feasibility of their technology but also providing that essential first step on the path to market that can be so hard.

In turn, we see the benefits for government departments as providing the chance to reach out to  a whole new arena of interesting ideas and solutions to help solve their particular problem. To date, we have launched some 93 SBRI competitions on behalf  of a range of government departments from the MoD to the Department of Health and from DECC to the Department for Transport. When we manage an SBRI competition on behalf of a government department we don’t have preconceived ideas of what the technologies or potential solutions might be or which sector they might come from. Our role is to put the problems out there and to let inspiration and innovation follow.

Government departments are able to reach out to a whole new arena of ideas

I was interested this month to meet some SBRI grant recipients during a visit to Northern Ireland where there is real momentum building around this programme. At a meeting organised by Invest Northern Ireland (INI) I had the opportunity to receive positive feedback about the SBRI process from three of the successful companies and a chance to spread the message about this programme to other representatives from INI.

We know that it can often be difficult and confusing for companies with innovative ideas to access the public sector but our role is to help government departments understand the significant business opportunities they can offer to smaller companies as a lead customer. The NHS is a good example of a sector where SBRI has produced products that have helped to meet a healthcare problem — from 3D cameras to monitor chronic wounds to breathing masks that detect potentially dangerous drops in respiratory rates. So, during my visit to Belfast I was keen to understand how we could better engage with NHS Northern Ireland to increase SBRI projects in this sector.

It is important for us, as an organisation with a UK-wide remit, to build close working relationships with all the devolved administrations and, with this introductory meeting, I have now met with each of the ministers of the devolved administrations this year.

We rely upon their valuable input and feedback about any issues and how we can deliver an improved and more appealing outreach to companies in their nations.

Iain Gray is chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board