As the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold in the UK back in March 2020, the uncertainties and challenges that followed for individuals and businesses across the country was unparalleled.
As a history graduate, I could see that what was unfolding was like nothing else experienced in modern times. I was acutely aware of not just the health concerns for individuals, but also of the economic impact this would have for generations to come.
During the second national lockdown in November 2020, I had been fortunate enough to find work that would be:
- positively challenging
This was a job created out of a crisis: the huge economic impact of COVID-19 on businesses across the country.
I was brought into Innovate UK as a Project Co-ordinator on the Continuity Grants programme.
What are Continuity Grants?
The Continuity Grants competition was launched in May 2020 as a response to the economic challenges faced by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and third sector organisations resulting from COVID-19.
Many SMEs experienced the impact of the pandemic on revenues, capacity and financial markets, and aligned funding had become more difficult to come by. Innovate UK addressed this by offering grant funding of up to £250,000 through the Continuity Grants programme to help support existing Innovate UK R&D projects through the pandemic.
The competition closed with almost 700 eligible applicants of which 634 made the cut and benefited from £65 million worth of grant ‘match’ funding. The reach was equally impressive, covering all regions and sectors of the UK.
How did it go?
The grant funding was truly game-changing for the recipients for whom some level of certainty was restored after concerns that much of their R&D activities may not be able to continue. Here’s some of the feedback we’ve received from participants:
The Continuity grant was a life saver for us.
The grant was not simply financial support, but instead a lifeline.
Beta Bugs, stated:
We were unlikely to recover without Continuity Grants.
The grants were essential in:
- retaining staff
- overcoming increasing costs
- supporting R&D activity
- enabling project delivery.
This of course not only had a significant impact on these individual projects and organisations, but of the UK economy and society, for which SMEs particularly in the R&D space are its lifeblood.
Over a year has passed since Innovate UK ran Continuity Grants and most projects have finished. We now understand the full impact from hundreds of recipient surveys we’ve received. Our findings back up the positive feedback we’ve previously had from participants. Moreover, the results are even better than we had anticipated!
Continuity Grant winners told us:
- an estimated 1100 jobs were retained as a result of participation in their innovation project (that’s 2.7 full-time jobs per organisation on average). This resulted from a combination of the Continuity Grant and core grant funding*
- organisations also told us they expect to introduce nearly 400 products, services or processes to market within a year of their projects completing*
The Continuity Grant is likely to have significantly contributed to the achievement of these outcomes by:
- minimising delays
- mitigating additional costs
- ensuring projects could continue as planned.
A closer look
It has been fantastic to see the positive impact the grant funding has had on individual R&D projects. None more so than for ‘robo-pack’, a project worth £450,000. Three partners collaborating on their core innovation project were working towards the development of an advanced robotic manipulator for rapid inspection and packing of fresh produce, with a particular focus on tomato:
Some of their key challenges which led to their grant application included:
- requiring significant skilled human resource for the inspection and packing of fresh produce
- current business model threatened by labour shortage as a result of Brexit and COVID-19
- COVID-19 presented unique challenges such as health risks to workers and staff absence (sickness and isolation) whilst orders increased significantly.
The Continuity Grant funding came at the perfect time for the project. It funded a new conveyor belt and robot arm that was needed to cope with the effects of the pandemic and enabled the project to continue and excel, “we’ve gone even further and even faster”!
To top it off the project secured a £300 million contract to supply their robotic innovation worldwide, the biggest award for any robotics company in the UK!
Continued R&D activity
R&D is central to the future prospects of the UK, so it was critical as the pandemic crisis hit that every attempt was made to protect existing projects in the field.
It is clear that the Continuity Grants programme was key in achieving this as without it, I’m confident many of the projects would not have continued. This would put in jeopardy the survival of thousands of SMEs and partners involved.
You can go to the Innovate UK website
* Source: based on self-reported data submitted by 408 organisations via Innovate UK’s project completion form. Please note that the programme evaluation is continuing and full results will be known at a later point.
Top image: Credit: Pavel Muravev / Getty Images