Innovating STEAM: Demystifying UK Government Funding

Innovating STEAM: Demystifying UK Government Funding

Following on from the fantastic feedback I’ve had from both government and industry on my article Innovating Immersive Reality: Demystifying UK Government Funding, I’m now demystifying government funding for STEAM innovation.

I have a background in both Computer Science and Fine Art. In October 2017 I gave a TEDx talk (Innovating the Impossible) on how STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths –  rather than just STEM (without the Arts), enables diversity of thought, which is what drives innovation. This led to a summary of my TEDx advocating Round 1 of the Open Competition in January 2018. That competition has now closed, but now there’s round 2! (Closing 12 September 2018).

Open Competition

Officially named the “Open grant funding competition: round 2”, friends know this grant as the “Open Competition”. It’s the UK Government’s main STEAM-focused grant competition.


The Open Competition is a £20 million fund delivered by Innovate UK, within the newly created UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

How much can you get?

That depends on three things: project duration, type of participant and type of project.

Duration Total Project Cost Collaboration
6-18 months £25,000 – £50,000 Single (must be SME) or collaborative (at least one SME)
19-36 months £25,000 – £2 million Collaborative (at least one SME)

So, your total project cost – which would be paid for by both grant funding and private funding – can be up to £2 million. How much you can get depends on the duration. The duration also determines if you can be just an SME or if you have to collaborate with partners, one of whom must be an SME.

Projects with total costs between £2 million and £3 million are possible – but only if it is fully justified and discussed at least 10 days prior to applying. Be sure – because if Innovate UK doesn’t agree that the extra cost is essential, your project will be deemed ineligible and you will lose the chance to apply.

How much is covered by the grant?

What percentage of that total project cost gets paid for by the Open Competition grant depends on what you are and what you’re applying to do.

Applicant Business Size Feasibility Studies Industrial Research Experimental Development
Micro / Small 70% 70% 45%
Medium 60% 60% 35%
Large 50% 50% 25%

Innovate UK uses the EU SME definition. If you are a UK SME but are owned by a large company, global or UK-based, then you are classed as a large company.

Research Organisations, which don’t contribute to the economy – like universities and Catapults – are different. They can essentially get 100% of their costs covered but can’t spend more than 30% of the total project costs. 70% of the total eligible project costs must be incurred by business.


This is the most open competition of them all. Applications can come from any part of STEAM, be applied to any part of the economy, and can even be outside of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) areas. That said, there are some rules.

What were those project types?

All grant funding is pre-commercial. Projects can be:

  • Feasibility studies
  • Industrial research
  • Experimental development

What does that actually mean?

Translating from UK Government vernacular:

Project Type Industry Description
Feasibility studies Activity: Analysis and evaluation of a project’s potential.

Objective: A vetted game-changing or disruptive idea.


  • Market Research
  • Business Case – including market research and a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), risk analysis, identification of resources needed and prospect for success based on estimated costs and projected value.
Industrial research Activity: Research or investigation to gain new knowledge and skills.

Objective: Game-changing or disruptive new products, processes or services (or novel use of existing ones) up to, but not including, rapid commercialisation leading to ROI.


  • Proof of Concept (PoC)
  • Prototype
  • Pre-commercial demonstration (demo)
  • Pre-commercial alpha or beta
  • Interface simulation
Experimental development Activity: Acquiring, combining or using existing knowledge and skills for projects which are nearer to market.

Objective: Game-changing or disruptive new products, processes or services (or novel use of existing ones) up to, but not including, rapid commercialisation leading to ROI.


  • Prototype
  • Pilot
  • Testing and validation
  • Pre-commercial beta

What does the Open Competition really want?

The UK Government’s goal is for the UK to be the world’s most innovative economy. These rules help it achieve that objective.

Key is that proposals must be business-focussed, rather than just pure research – i.e. the objective is to ultimately add value to the UK economy by creating something that will become revenue generating and profitable.


  • A clearly cutting-edge, game-changing or disruptive idea leading to new products, processes or services (or novel use of existing ones) that are significantly ahead of others in its field
  • Ideally global impact and a global audience with rapid potential for growth and scale
  • Customer and user-focussed


  • Documented and strong market research clearly showing potential for use and uptake
  • An impactful yet deliverable business plan
  • Detailed risk-register with management, mitigation and minimisation plans for each risk
  • Available resources with the skills and experience to deliver successfully and on time
  • If required to collaborate, how and why you will “effectively” collaborate with others
  • Practical timelines detailed in an evidenced-based project plan


  • A practical financial model that is cost-effective and revenue generating
  • Proof can provide match funding (actual private (not public) money; not work in kind)
  • Set for rapid commercialisation following the Open Competition project
  • Significant positive impact to the UK economy – i.e. Return on Investment (ROI)


If you want to lead a project:

  • Must be UK-based, do project work in the UK and exploit the results from the UK.
  • Must be a business or Research & Technology Organisation (RTO) like a Catapult. Academics cannot lead.
  • Only SMEs can work alone. Large businesses must partner with an SME. Lead RTOs must collaborate with a minimum of two businesses, one must be an SME. Can then collaborate with others.
  • Can only lead on one project at a time. But, can partner on as many as you want.
  • If you’ve had previous funding and didn’t deliver, walk away now.

If You Win

A few “gotchas” to watch out for:

  • You will need a good cashflow as the grant is only payable in arrears on costs actually incurred and paid. Claims may be subject to an independent audit.
  • You have 90 days to complete project set-up including your Collaboration Agreement.
  • You must start by the start date and complete within the required duration.
  • You can only claim for costs spent between your project start and end date.
  • Your project will be monitored quarterly by a Monitoring Officer against your detailed project plan and financial forecast.
  • Do a great job. You won’t get a second chance at more funding otherwise.

Key Dates

  • Online written application: 12 July, 2018 – 12 September, 2018 (noon)
  • Successful applicants notified: 26 November, 2018
  • Complete project set-up online including Collaboration Agreement: 23 February, 2018 (Within 90 days of notification)
  • Estimated project duration: 6-18 months / 19-36 months
  • Project start by: 1 March, 2019
  • Project end by: 31 August, 2019 – 31 August, 2020 / 30 September, 2020 – 28 February, 2022 (based on a start date of 1 March, 2019)

To find out more about the grant visit Open grant funding competition: round 2.

Support and Collaboration

If you’d like help putting together a proposal or applying for a STEAM-related competition, get in touch.

If your company or research organisation can offer specific value as part of a future collaboration relating to emerging visual technology, either directly or via related technologies like IoT or AI, please connect as I’m building a network of collaborators.


Maria Ingold is a board-level strategic and technical innovator and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) with a 25-year track record in successfully deploying emerging visual technology. She is the former CTO of a Disney / Sony joint venture, where she delivered one of the most successful video on demand (VOD) movie services in Europe from launch and was profitable from year one. Maria advises companies on innovation, including funding opportunities. She is also a global public speaker, writer and BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) judge.

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