Barriers to funding are holding back Britain’s innovative businesses from achieving their full potential, according to innovation enablers Challenge Works. But working alongside similar businesses, sharing advice and securing business support in a specialised enterprise zone could provide one answer.
Figures from Challenge Works’ survey on barriers facing innovators, published on OpenAccessGovernment.org, show that only 44% of innovators know where to look to secure funding that will enable them to turn ideas into reality.

And with 65% of medium-sized businesses saying they need business mentoring, it is clear that SMEs are in need of clear pathways to funding and business support to deliver on innovation.

“We’re at a tipping point,” says Simon Wright, regeneration and portfolio manager at Lincolnshire County Council (LCC). “Innovation is absolutely critical to the UK agrifood sector and achieving its net zero ambitions.

“We’re experiencing a food, energy and climate crisis: Now is not the time for innovation to be stalled. We need innovative agri-tech and food focused SMEs and start-ups to be helped, not hampered.

“And while the survey is not sector specific, the outcomes are relatable to the experiences of innovators in farming and food production.”

The survey also revealed that 57% of SME innovators worry about rejection when accessing funding because of a lack of track record; and 50% are concerned that funding will be rejected because of lack of testing, while 49% fear their idea will be considered too risky. And concerns over the shape of the funding landscape are not an overreaction, with 34% of innovators in medium-sized enterprises having their applications rejected due to untested ideas.

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Innovating for social good is high on the agenda and key in developing technologies designed to mitigate challenges like climate change. Encouragingly, the survey found that 54% of innovators want to achieve this, however, they also believe that there is no funding available to them.

Innovation requires capital and robust business support, says Mr Wright.

And by working alongside businesses facing similar challenges, innovators can access the advice and support they need. Incubators like the South Lincolnshire Food Enterprise Zone (FEZ) bring agri-tech and food-tech businesses together, and help them to secure the funding, research and real-world testing that they need.

Located in the heart of the UK Food Valley, the South Lincolnshire FEZ has development plots with outline planning permission for purpose-built facilities, as well as pre-built flexible office, workshop, food processing, and R&D space. With links to the University of Lincoln and its National Centre for Food Manufacturing, it is supported by an internationally renowned R&D team.

Funding clearly matters for the development of agri-food products and services, says Paul Ward, agricultural and horticultural adviser at Business Lincolnshire, which supports the start-up and growth of SMEs.

“There’s a freely accessible range of up-to-date funding and finance options on the Business Lincolnshire website,” advises Mr Ward. “It is also very useful for finding mentoring, training and other business support opportunities – but it is well worth contacting the team who can advise on the best routes to pursue.

“Ultimately, it circles back to people,” he adds. “It’s about understanding the whole paradigm and what shifts are happening from field to fork. Then join the dots by linking the right people with the right expertise and providing appropriate facilities for the optimal outcomes.”

Panel: Funding Example

An example of upcoming funding opportunities for agri-tech businesses – micro to large – includes the next round of Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme. Within this is the Farming Futures R&D Fund, which is running an automation and robotics competitive grant scheme.

The aim is to fund collaborative projects which will develop ambitious robotic and automation solutions to increase productivity and address labour issues in agriculture and horticulture in England.

There are two strands to this round of funding:

  1. Industrial research – to accelerate collaborative R&D with research organisations, agri-tech businesses, SMEs, and the UK agricultural sector.
  2. Experimental deployment – to accelerate the deployment and uptake of innovative robotic and automation solutions.

Funding for successful applicants:

  • Strand 1: Small/micro businesses can claim 70% of project costs, while medium and large businesses can claim 60% and 50%, respectively.
  • Strand 2: Small/micro businesses can claim 45% of project costs, while medium and large businesses can claim 35% and 25%, respectively.
  • Research organisations can claim up to 30% of total costs.

Eligibility: Applicants need to collaborate with at least one other business or research organisation. Farmers, growers or foresters must be involved throughout the project to ensure solutions work in practice.

Dates: Opens 9 January, 2023 with an online pre-register briefing on 18 January, 2023. Competition closes 15 March, 2023 at 11am.

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