Millions for ideas

British companies are to be supported to develop products and services in diverse areas such as health, defence, transport and construction through a novel £100m government scheme.

Through the scheme, called the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), public-sector organisations will invite British companies to submit ideas and develop technologies, which the public-sector organisation could then buy to help improve public services.

Explaining the aim of the SBRI, its head, Mark Glover, said: ‘There are lots of novel and exciting ideas out there and the SBRI enables the public sector to seek out these innovative ideas and then support turning them into commercial, viable products and services.

‘Everyone benefits – the business develops a highly commercial and valuable new product, [while] the public-sector organisation finds a product that helps it solve a problem and meets its needs. And, of course, we all benefit from improved services,’ he added.

A trial of the scheme was run by the Department of Health in 2008. Companies were invited to develop technologies and systems to improve hand hygiene, reducing the number of infections – such as MRSA – contracted in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries.

The most promising ideas will be developed into prototypes, which may then result in the product or service being bought for use by hospitals and surgeries.

The Department of Health plans to fund SBRI competitions in other areas where new technology may help improve public services, while the East of England Strategic Health Authority is launching three SBRI competitions this month, focusing on technologies to help manage patients with long-term conditions, technologies that enable better patient monitoring and technologies to encourage children to do more exercise.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is using the SBRI to find ways to lighten the load for soldiers operating in war zones such as Afghanistan. It is inviting companies to come up with lightweight technologies and materials that reduce the weight carried by infantry soldiers, their weapons and ammunition. The MoD is also looking for ideas for highly mobile robotic vehicles that can support soldiers in the field and carry some of their equipment.

The SBRI has been promoted by the Technology Strategy Board: the organisation that was established by the government to support the development of technology for the benefit of the British economy.

The Department for Transport (DfT), the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Home Office are running and developing further competitions through the SBRI scheme.

Twenty funding competitions will be launched over the coming year, with contracts worth a total of £40m available. This will be expanded to 50 competitions, worth more than £100m, by 2011.