With a little help from my Whitehall friends

For the adventurous, there is sometimes financial help to be found in unlikely places, as Charles Orton-Jones reports

Looking for funding? Then try the government. No joke.

In fact there are approximately 500 UK government programmes to help fund businesses. There are Broadband Connection Vouchers worth £3,000. Clean-tech firms can claim a million pounds via the Energy Entrepreneurs Fund.

Want to buy an eco-friendly van? The Department for Transport’s Plug-in Van scheme can fund 20 per cent of the cost, up to £8,000. Then there are local offers, such as the Aylesbury Vale Business Grant – £5,000 for firms lucky enough to fall in the catchment area.

There are so many schemes that just listing the major ones will take up most of this page. And are they any good? Absolutely. Listen to Nikhil Shah, founder of podcast streaming website Mixcloud. He drew a blank at regular bank and venture capital (VC) funding. “We were too early stage. We hadn’t built the site, so no one was interested in backing us,” he says.

Mr Shah turned to the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), funded by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and mandated to invest in cutting-edge startups. Mixcloud landed three TSB grants. “We are a genuine example of UK government funding producing a global success story,” he points out.

So what’s out there? Let’s start with the newest scheme. Growth Vouchers have just launched. If you employ fewer than 49 staff you may be eligible for £2,000 worth of vouchers for professional advice. Tiny catch – you do need to match the amount with your own funds.

There are so many schemes that just listing the major ones will take up most of this page

Startups ought to look at the Startup Loan Scheme. The application process is a bit odd – fill out the application on the official website and a “delivery partner” will be allocated to you. Loans are fixed at 6 per cent interest at one to five years. Average loan size is £5,900, up to a maximum of £25,000.

There is a slew of loan-guarantee and investment assistance schemes to help you land private-sector funding. The flagship scheme is the Enterprise Finance Guarantee. Private sector lenders will give you the option of paying a 2 per cent interest premium, in return for 75 per cent of the loan getting guaranteed by the government. The deal makes lenders significantly more likely to loosen their purse strings.

The Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme offers individual investors up to 50 per cent tax relief on investments up to £100,000. Larger firms can make use of the Enterprise Investment Scheme, offering 30 per cent income tax relief for investments by individuals up to a maximum investment of £1 million. The fine print is extensive – definitely one to talk to a tax specialist about.

Charities and community interest companies will enjoy competing for the Big Society Bank’s billion-pound war chest. Boss Nick O’Donohoe stresses that this isn’t just free cash for civic-minded projects. “Balancing social objectives with the need to make a return is what it’s all about. These can be conflicting objectives,” he says.

The vast majority of government funding for businesses is hidden from view, operating as co-investment with private-sector investors. The new British Business Bank will be investing more than £1 billion through a plethora of private-sector institutions, including peer-to-peer lenders, such as Zopa, MarketInvoice and Funding Circle.

The VC industry is assisted by the UK Future Technologies Fund, a funds-of-funds investing in venture capital funds in the ICT, life sciences and advanced manufacturing sectors. Again, the involvement of taxpayer cash won’t immediately be obvious to applicants.

With so many grants how can you find the right one? The official place to start is Gov.uk’s finance search tool. But its database is incomplete and the tool often leads to dead ends. Instead, try GrantFinder.co.uk. This lists all UK and EU grants, loans, charitable trusts and corporate sponsors.

The website employs 20 researchers to aggregate all offers relevant to businesses. There are around 300 EU programmes alone. Intriguingly, these are being revamped as part of a planned EU-wide review in 2014, leading to many new and under-publicised grants becoming listed.

Any advice for landing government help? Mr Shah at Mixcloud offers two cracking bits of advice. The first regards co-funding. “You are often required to match the grant with the same amount yourself. This sounds tricky, but I realised that you can put a value on your own time. So if you have a few people working on a project you can value that time at, say, £25,000, and use that sum to ‘match’ the amount you are being awarded.”

Tip two: “Be ambitious. Schemes like the Technology Strategy Board want to reward bleeding-edge businesses which have a chance of going global. We applied for one grant and got turned down because we were too conservative. Don’t be afraid of thinking big. They are looking for entrepreneurs with grand strategies.”

And don’t get too enthralled by the offer of free cash. Hugh Williams, founder of Hughenden Consulting in High Wycombe, landed £1,000 of funding for hardware via the Sustainable Routes programme. “I’m not going to turn down free cash,” he admits. “But the best assistance we got was the government’s Growth Accelerator. And we paid for that. For £600 we got an adviser who helped us double turnover in a year. Worth every penny.”