Inclusive Innovation: looking forward to the next normal

The disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have brought inequality into sharp focus. It cannot be ignored.

Recent events have shaken the world, bringing significant changes to our society and economy. And one of these changes is that equality, diversity and inclusion is being talked about everywhere. The conversations – in the news, on social media and at events – has never been as widespread, as pervasive, or as sustained. 

Tear down the barriers

My work at Innovate UK promotes Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in business innovation. As the UK’s Innovation Agency, we have a responsibility to address the system-wide inequalities in research and innovation. Based on current under-representation in business innovation compared to the UK working age population, there is a significant, under-utilised opportunity for positive economic and societal impacts in the UK.

A growing number of studies demonstrate the significant potential for widening participation in innovation, including the Rose Review and Unlocking Opportunity.

Over the last decade, progress towards a more diverse and inclusive innovation system has been slow and there is a danger that recent events could push back any progress that has been made.

However, I would like to think that the opposite is true, right now people and organisations within the system want change and businesses are responding.

Young Innovator Winner: Ameenah Begum, Founder of Cos Colours

We are keen to work with partners to galvanise efforts and make strides towards an innovation system where:

  • Anyone with a great idea for innovation, from any background, has an equal opportunity to be successful.
  • Innovative businesses fully embrace the strategic importance of EDI as a means of competitive advantage and to attract and retain the best talent.
  • New innovations are developed to involve and benefit all parts of our society.

It is not going to be a quick fix, but it is worth sustaining the effort because it will bring huge economic and societal gains.

A long way to go

We know that we can do more to make our systems and processes more inclusive, whilst and incentivising diversity and inclusion. In a recent blog, I talked about the Power of Diversity Data and the need for appropriate, accurate insight.

Armed with this, we will be able to identify action in the right places to influence positive change and track progress. I also explained how we have incorporated EDI into the questions that Innovate UK asks applicants in our funding competitions. This allows us to clearly demonstrate the importance we place on EDI and to influence businesses at a point when we know it will have an effect.

Young Innovator Winner: Benjamin Ndubuisi, Co-Founder of VING.AI

The environment is changing. Our societal values are changing. The way that people want to live their lives is changing – and changing fast! We need new innovations and new businesses to move in line with this. Ensuring the innovation ecosystem is accessible to all entrepreneurs, regardless of age, ethnicity, disability or gender, is an opportunity to both strengthen our economy and deliver immense social benefit.

Tackling under-representation

Our research shows that half of young people feel that age is a barrier to setting up a business and that not knowing where to get support and lack of confidence are real challenges. This is why, in partnership with the Prince’s Trust, Innovate UK founded the Young Innovators programme and #IdeasMeanBusiness campaign, to empower aspiring young entrepreneurs (18-30 year-olds) from diverse backgrounds across all parts of the UK.

The young innovators programme provides tailored business mentorship, financial support and professional connections to enable young people to turn their ideas into successful and sustainable businesses. It is about demonstrating to young people that there are many, many different routes to innovation. But, it’s also about fostering an army of role models and using their stories to inspire the next generation of forward-thinking innovators.

The pandemic triggered a surge of entrepreneurialism in the UK, leading to a record-breaking number of applications to our Young Innovators programme. In response, we doubled our investment, enabling us to support 64 aspiring young innovators in 2020/21. From plastic alternatives made from seaweed to socially aware robotic care assistants, our Young Innovators are driven by a strong purpose to make the world a better place – passionate about positively contributing to society and the environment.

Young Innovator, Adam Root, Founder of Matter

So far over 12,000 young people have engaged with our #IdeasMeanBusiness campaign and by 2023 we will have provided over 150 awards for Young Innovators.

In early 2016 we found that only 1 in 7 (14%) of lead applicants for our funding were women. We carried out interviews with women innovators and the headline finding was that access to finance was the primary barrier they faced. We also learned about the importance of role models and mentors and that visibility of innovation support and specifically Innovate UK was very poor.

Although the Rose review hadn’t been kicked off back then there was plenty of evidence highlighting the untapped economic impact that increasing women in innovation would have (including a Deloitte review that highlighted the potential to deliver £180 billion to the UK economy by increasing women’s engagement in entrepreneurial activity).

We shaped our Women in Innovation programme to address all of this. The overall objective to increase the number of women innovators in the UK engaging with Innovate UK and at the same time encourage more women to get involved with innovation to boost overall numbers of women innovators in the UK for the future.

So what does the programme involve? An important aspect of the programme is our awards. So far, we have had three rounds of awards and we have supported 80 female innovators each receiving a £50,000 grant and a tailored package of mentoring and business support. They have featured in a photography exhibition with Getty images (challenging perceptions) and we have also installed purple plaques at schools that our award winners have a connection with to inspire future generations.

Dr Fanya Ismail, Founder and CEO of SGMA

They are an extremely impressive group. Since receiving our awards they have grown their businesses, gone on to secure more investment, and continued to gain recognition for the work they are doing. In the last year, this group has adapted to change and demonstrated massive resilience.

However, the awards are only one aspect of the programme. Our Women in Innovation community comprises over 6500 women across the UK. And the programme is much more than just finding more women innovators and highlighting opportunities. It is about providing the right support so that women in the community are in a strong position to access and benefit from those opportunities.

We have seen a significant boost (70% uplift) in the number of women engaging with Innovate UK programmes since the programme started.

The will to change

We know that we need to work harder to reach new audiences. We need to tailor our communications and make our support more inclusive and accessible. We run regular events for our Young Innovators and Women in Innovation communities (obviously lots of online engagement at the moment). This is about providing inspiration, practical advice, and highlighting opportunities for innovation support. But, just as importantly, it is about providing a platform for peer networking.

Women in Innovation Winner: Bella Trang Ngo, Co-founder of Brarista

I have outlined just a few examples of our work here. We will continue to take action to level the playing field, address inequalities in the innovation system, and open up access to funding and finance for innovative businesses led by underrepresented and overlooked founders.

Huge thanks to all our amazing partners who support our EDI programmes.

We are looking forward to seeing all the fantastic applications for our competitions this year!


Young Innovators competition opened for applications on 14 June 2021.

Women in Innovation competition opens for applications on 23 August 2021.

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Top image:  Women in Innovation Winner: Dr. Lucy Grundlingh, Co-Founder of SFR Medical

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