SBRI: driving innovation for the public sector

The case for the public entrepreneur doing good was persuasively set out in a recent report by the RSA that my organisation, Innovate UK, sponsored. Over a six-month period a research team from the RSA applied its model of change - “think like a system, act like an entrepreneur” - to the challenges of procuring and scaling innovation through government.

The RSA’s team investigated approaches to public procurement of innovation such as the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI). In January the programme reached a significant milestone, having awarded more than £0.5 billion in research and development contracts since its inception.

These awards, from public sector bodies to companies, stimulate the development of new innovative solutions to improve services within the public sector. A study by Manchester Institute of Innovation with the Enterprise Research Centre and OMB Research, estimated that for every £1 awarded through SBRI at least £2.40 was returned to the UK economy, meaning that conservatively SBRI has delivered more than £1 billion to the UK.

Public procurers drive innovation by acting as customers

More than 66 per cent of the contracts are awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have, for example, solved challenges to enable nurses to spend 10 per cent more time with patients, developed new materials for advanced protection in helmets and clothing, improved the ability for collection of uncollected rates in Belfast, and developed new chemical sensors for earlier disease diagnosis in patients.

Public procurers can drive innovation from the demand side by acting as technologically demanding customers who buy the development and testing of new solutions. This enables public bodies to modernise public services faster and to create opportunities for companies to take international leadership in new markets, creating jobs and growth in our economy.

Last year an independent review of SBRI was conducted to consider how government can increase the impact of the scheme and give more innovators their first break. Informed by this review and recognising the value of the programme, the UK government will refocus the SBRI to increase its impact for innovative businesses, aligning it with grand challenges and building capability in the public sector to drive productivity by adopting SBRI solutions.

Government support of the SBRI will boost innovation

As a first step, the government announced a new GovTech Catalyst with a GovTech Fund of up to £20 million over three years, which will use SBRI, backed by Innovate UK, to support tech firms to provide innovative solutions for more efficient public services.

In May, Oliver Dowden, minister for implementation, announced the first five GovTech Catalyst challenges that were to be run as competitions, which tech-sector SMEs have been able to bid on.

They were for the Home Office to identify online still image propaganda created by Daesh; for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to develop new digital solutions for tracking waste from its source to treatment or destination; for Monmouthshire County Council to combat rural isolation through better use of technology; for the Department for Transport and Royal Borough of Greenwich to tackle road traffic congestion; and for Durham and Blaenau Gwent councils to make use of smart sensors on council vehicles to improve services.

These five challenges show the breadth of needs across central and local government that could be met through the innovative use of technology. Their impact could help further make the case for the positive role of the public entrepreneur in our economy and society.