Published: 07 March 2022
Professor Mike Lewis, Director of NIHR's Invention for Innovation (i4i) Programme highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a shakeup of some research funding models and explains how the NIHR's new, pilot FAST funding scheme, will provide accelerated, simple funding to allow innovations to be further explored for follow-on investment.
Before I took on the role of joint Programme Director at i4i/SBRI Healthcare, I frequently sat on research funding panels. As grant panel Chair, I was always impressed by the patience of applicants on what can be a lengthy application process of up to 12 months or longer. But I was also concerned that this approach may not match the pace of innovation.
Typical grant funding processes work well for complex projects that have a clear pathway to translation and commercialisation, but they don’t allow for quick 'yes' or 'no' answers or potential ‘fail fast’ moments that are part of all innovation projects in devices, diagnostics, and digital tools such as algorithms. There had to be a better way.
Working with some colleagues in the UK and the US, I believed there was a need for a simple transactional piece of funding to allow innovations to be further explored and ‘de-risked’ - where potential problems are identified and ironed out - or to fail fast if they are simply not viable.
The Covid legacy
Countries worldwide used the Covid-19 pandemic to accelerate and simplify funding models, while the UK used the breadth of academia and the scale of the NHS to deliver real-world evidence at a pace previously not considered achievable. All of this was geared towards answering simple and singular questions, such as finding out if pre-existing drugs could help to treat hospitalised patients with COVID-19.
With this in mind, NIHR is launching our new, pilot FAST grant scheme - ‘Funding At the Speed of Translation’, under the NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i) banner. We want to grasp this opportunity to leverage the optimism around life sciences innovation in the UK and become an enabler of faster innovation by creating a novel way to harness the UK’s undoubted talent.
Not fast enough
The current tried and tested grant assessment process is too long. This ‘natural’ cycle was suitable for a world where the focus was mainly on drug discovery, which can require a longer set up time and multi-centre involvement.
However, as more data and digital innovations are developed to address evolving unmet clinical needs, this cycle is under pressure to adapt. Given that a digital therapy or device for intervention can go through two innovation cycles in the time it takes to gain approval for a single round of grant funding, the pressure points are obvious.
There are five key themes to the FAST funding scheme, based around simplified bureaucracy, velocity, light-touch due diligence, and removing barriers to access rapid grant funding.
- Open to all - The funding will be open to all organisations registered in England - small and medium enterprises (SMEs), higher education institutions (HEIs), NHS, and not-for-profit organisations. Collaboration with NIHR infrastructure, in particular the NIHR MedTech and In Vitro Diagnostics Co-operatives (MICs), is encouraged.
- Fast response - For the FAST Awards, the team is committed to an overall review and decision period of approximately six to eight weeks.
- Upfront costs - 90% of project costs are paid upfront to improve velocity, capped at a minimum of £15,000 and maximum of £50,000. Funding will follow standard NIHR guidelines.
- Simple application - Applicants will submit a short online application form responding to only three questions.
- Short timeline and rapid success measures – Subject to some light touch due diligence, projects must start within three weeks of being awarded, and be completed within three to six months of their start date.
The scheme's success and popularity will determine whether we continue, or in our own words, fail fast! If you are an entrepreneurial thinker then this might be your chance to accelerate.
Professor Mike Lewis, Director of NIHR's Invention for Innovation (i4i) Programme