London, UK (Scicasts) — Biotechnology is among the most popular industries today, and its worth has been predicted to reach €52 Billion in Europe by 2030. However, to ensure successful translation of academic research into innovation, intermediary bodies are required to provide the link. Innovate UK is among the few government-appointed agencies on this mission.

The UK is among only a handful of countries where a government-led body was appointed to look after innovation. Other famous examples include the US with its Defense Advancement Projects Research Agency (DAPRA) and Finland with its agency for innovation Tekes, while most of the EU countries are yet to pick up the trend.

There is a general consensus (in Europe) that the government has to play a role in fostering the creation and diffusion of high quality knowledge within society.

Innovate UK, the agency formerly known as the Technology Strategy Board, has a budget of £500 Million for projects in strategic areas such as agriculture, energy research or materials science. Academic partners are entitled to receive about 10% of this money, whereas the rest is directed to innovative companies, particularly SMEs.

“We can have as many competitions as one a week,” says one of the lead technologists at Innovate UK Merlin Goldman, “particularly if we see an important topic where there are opportunities for both academics and businesses to work together.”

Biotechnology ranks high on the list of agency’s priorities, where many of the current open calls (shown below) are related in one way or another to bio-sciences.

Two competitions are dedicated to the so-called “-omics” projects, dealing with the problem of big data in biological sciences. Seven other calls offer funding for energy research, among which the largest budget was allocated to the low-carbon propulsion technologies.

Current open calls from Innovate UK. Hover over the nodes to see titles for each call. The size of the circles reflects the maximum cost of a project, which can be submitted within the call. Drag the circles across the screen to see full descriptions. Click on the circles to fold/unfold branches. For more information visit the agency's official website

Innovation Catalysts

Five competitions shown above belong to the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst scheme, a novel funding model run jointly by Innovate UK and Research Councils.

The Catalyst model supports projects in priority areas where the UK research base has a leading position and where there is a clear commercial potential. Three levels of funding are usually available: from early stage feasibility studies leading to industrial research and market testing, to the late stages where the commercial model is tested in a real-life environment or on the market.

Applicants are invited to submit proposals at any stage of their project. There are currently four Catalyst Programs: Agri-Tech Catalyst, Biomedical Catalyst, Energy Catalyst and Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst.

The locus of innovation is no longer in single large companies, but in innovation networks involving a mix of partners: universities, labs, start-up companies, multinationals, and governments.

Funding is offered through an ongoing competition. Individual businesses and academics, have the opportunity to propose projects which will create new knowledge and future products, processes and services. Some of the projects at the early stages of development are led by academic partners, whereas at the later stages companies are required to take the lead.

“We understand that innovation often comes not from businesses themselves but from translation of great research that is being performed In the UK,” says Merlin. “Therefore, we try and offer mechanisms that would allow that type of collaboration.”

Catapult Centres for Technology and Innovation

Providing funding and discussion ground is often not enough to drive forward a risky project. Successful biotechnology companies rely on large equipment facilities, which can be very costly to build and sustain. Most of the time, small companies simply cannot afford that.

We hope that if we can increase the amount of innovative projects, activities and interactions in the UK, companies will be more comfortable working on higher risk projects and working with academics.

Merlin Goldman, about the mission of Innovate UK

As a solution, a new concept of Catapult Centres was introduced in 2010 and Innovate UK received over £200 Million of government investments to build a network of innovation facilities. Catapults are now independent physical centres that offer a space with equipment and scientific expertise to businesses and researchers.

High Value Manufacturing was the first Catapult established in 2011. “It is unusual because it is a mixture of seven centres,” says Merlin Goldman who was working on this project. “One of those, Centre for Process Innovation, hosts the national industrial biotechnology facility. They have very large pieces of equipment including a fermenter for 10,000 users.”

Other centres, such as Connected Digital Economy Catapult do not contain major physical assets but rather serve as a platform to bring together businesses and academics. “The main challenge for them”, says Merlin, “is to work out how we can make the best economic opportunity of everything. The Catapult [in this case] would be a seed-funding opportunity.”

Choosing Strategic Priorities

When deciding upon which area should receive special support, many factors such as economic outcomes or societal needs would be considered. “It’s tricky,” says Merlin. “Funders often tend to respond to what they feel the community (both public and academic) wants.”

One of the popular trends in the last few years, he says, has been synthetic biology. A number of projects in this field, which were funded through the recent Industrial Biotechnology call Round 2, are now listed on their website.

Researchers who work closely with companies doing applied research achieve higher quality rankings for their fundamental research than peers who do not collaborate with industry.

“We’ve had a big debate about its uniqueness and how it was related to industrial biotechnology,” says Merlin. “I think it did deserve some special attention and we are probably among the world leaders in that area.”

Another novel area supported jointly by BBSRC and Innovate UK is Biofilms. The competition for early-stage feasibility study funding in this field will open in the middle of June and feature a total budget of up to £2.5 million.

Researchers in the fields of clinical, food and water, and environmental microbiology have begun to investigate microbiologic processes from a biofilm perspective.

R M Donlan, “Biofilms: Microbial Life on Surfaces”, Emerg Infect Dis. 2002 Sep; 8(9): 881–890

“It is a very interesting phenomenon,” says Merlin. “It involves growing microorganisms on flat chips, which can be used in waste-water treatments, where waste water goes out into large circular tanks and biofilms of microorganisms clean the water. But there are also negative sides such as that biofilms can cause flow restrictions. We are trying to learn more about the phenomena and tackle the challenges.”

Two open calls offer support to projects dealing with the problem of big data, such as genomics, proteomics and similar “-omics” projects. In spite of being listed as overrated by academic researchers who took part in the recent Scicasts survey, this area is considered important by Innovate UK.

“It certainly seems important,” says Merlin, “and there are a lot of companies that are battling to address the large amounts of data that they have generated. In my area, genomics generated a lot of data but [there are] very few people who can interpret it.”

“We do see trends and certain waves of popularity of what the next big thing is. I assume that we may get excited about a particular topic and perhaps, funding follows that. But I would say that it’s usually short-lived and temporary.”

Whether another trend in graphene studies is a temporary wave or the next breakthrough, remains to be seen. The field has been experiencing a surge in popularity since 2010 when a Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov.

Graphene has a number of remarkable properties. It is substantially stronger than steel, and it is very stretchable. The thermal and electrical conductivity is very high and it can be used as a flexible conductor.

from the Scientific Background on the Nobel Prize in Physics 2010.

“The fact that there recently was a Nobel Prize awarded in the area, made it look special and we try to support people working there,” says Merlin. “What will come out of the field is difficult to predict yet.”

“It may be like lasers, which took a long time to be found in different sectors. I think that graphene is one of such areas and it will appear in a form of different products. So in the future we will think ‘Oh, we were right to invest in graphene.’”