Funding competition Circular economy for SMEs – innovating with the NICER programme

UK registered businesses can apply for a share of up to £1 million to research, test and develop step-change circular economy approaches.

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Competition sections

Description

Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation, will invest up to £1 million in circular economy innovation projects.

This funding forms part of the UKRI National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research programme (NICER), enabling SMEs to engage with and benefit from access to expertise at five research centres via collaborative research and development (CR&D) activities.

The aim of this competition is to support feasibility studies, industrial research and experimental development that address the challenges of transitioning to a circular economy.

Your proposal must demonstrate how you will create a step-change in the adoption of circular economy approaches.

In applying to this competition, you are entering into a competitive process. This competition closes at 11am UK time on the deadline stated.

Funding type

Grant

Project size

Your project’s total eligible costs must be between £50,000 and £100,000.

Who can apply

Your project

Your project must:

  • have total eligible costs between £50,000 and £100,000
  • start no earlier than 1 April 2022
  • end by 31 March 2023
  • last between 9 and 12 months
  • carry out all of its project work in the UK
  • intend to exploit the results from or in the UK

You must either include at least one of the UKRI Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres as a project partner, or include a letter of support from one of the centres. The letters must demonstrate alignment of the proposed activities to one or more Centres’ aims and objectives.

If your project’s total eligible costs or duration falls outside of our eligibility criteria, you must provide justification by email to support@innovateuk.ukri.org at least 10 working days before the competition closes. We will decide whether to approve your request. If you have not requested approval or your request has not been approved by us, you will be made ineligible and your application will not be sent for assessment.

Lead organisation

To lead a project or work alone your organisation must be a UK registered micro, small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) business.

Academic institutions cannot lead or work alone.


Project team

To collaborate with the lead, your organisation must be one of the following UK registered:

  • business of any size
  • academic institution
  • charity
  • not-for-profit
  • public sector organisation
  • research and technology organisation (RTO)

Each partner organisation must be invited into the Innovation Funding Service by the lead to collaborate on a project. Once accepted, partners will be asked to login or to create an account and enter their own project costs into the Innovation Funding Service.

If part of a collaboration the lead and at least one other organisation must claim funding by entering their costs during the application.

Your project can include partners that do not receive any of this competition’s funding, for example non-UK businesses. Their costs will count towards the total eligible project costs.

Subcontractors

Subcontractors are allowed in this competition.

Subcontractors can be from anywhere in the UK and you must select them through your usual procurement process.

You can use subcontractors from overseas but must make the case in your application as to why you could not use suppliers from the UK.

You must also provide a detailed rationale, evidence of the potential UK contractors you approached and the reasons why they were unable to work with you.

We expect all subcontractor costs to be justified and appropriate to the total eligible project costs. We will not accept a cheaper cost as a sufficient reason to use an overseas subcontractor.


Number of applications

A business can only lead on one application but can be included as a collaborator in a further 2 applications.

An academic institution, charity, not-for-profit, public sector organisation or RTO can collaborate on any number of applications.

Previous applications

You can use a previously submitted application to apply for this competition.

We will not award you funding if you have:

Subsidy control (and State aid where applicable)

This competition provides funding in line with the UK's obligations and commitments to Subsidy Control. Further information about the UK Subsidy Control requirements can be found within the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation agreement and the subsequent guidance from the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Innovate UK is unable to award organisations that are considered to be in financial difficulty. We will conduct financial viability and eligibility tests to confirm this is not the case following the application stage.

EU State aid rules now only apply in limited circumstances. Please see our general guidance to check if these rules apply to your organisation.


Further Information

If you are unsure about your obligations under the UK Subsidy Control regime or the State aid rules, you should take independent legal advice. We are unable to advise on individual eligibility or legal obligations.

You must make sure at all times that the funding awarded to you is compliant with all current Subsidy Control legislation applicable in the United Kingdom.
This aims to regulate any advantage granted by a public sector body which threatens to or actually distorts competition in the United Kingdom or any other country or countries.

If there are any changes to the above requirements that mean we need to change the terms of this competition, we will tell you as soon as possible.

Funding

Innovate UK have allocated up to £1 million to fund innovation projects in this competition.

If the majority of your organisation’s work on the project is commercial or economic, your funding request must not exceed the limits below. These limits apply even if your organisation normally acts non-economically.

For feasibility studies and industrial research projects, you could get funding for your eligible project costs of:

  • up to 70% if you are a micro or small organisation
  • up to 60% if you are a medium-sized organisation
  • up to 50% if you are a large organisation

For experimental development projects which are nearer to market, you could get funding for your eligible project costs of:

  • up to 45% if you are a micro or small organisation
  • up to 35% if you are a medium-sized organisation
  • up to 25% if you are a large organisation

NICER Centre academic partners can apply for funding for activities or additional resources and materials that are essential to the project achieving its full potential. These costs must be eligible project costs which have not been supported by UKRI funds already awarded.

For more information on company sizes, please refer to the company accounts guidance. This is a change from the EU definition unless you are applying under State aid.

If you are applying for an award funded under State aid Regulations, the definitions are set out in the European Commission Recommendation of 6 May 2003.

Research participation

The research organisations undertaking non-economic activity as part of the project can share up to 30% of the total eligible project costs. If your consortium contains more than one research organisation undertaking non-economic activity, this maximum is shared between them.


Of that 30% you could get funding for your eligible project costs of up to:

  • 80% of full economic costs (FEC) if you are a Je-s registered institution such as an academic
  • 100% of your eligible project costs if you are an RTO, charity, non-profit organisation, public sector organisation or research organisation

Your proposal

The aim of this competition is to support feasibility studies, industrial research and experimental development projects that address the challenges of transitioning to a circular economy.

Your project must demonstrate how you will create a step-change in the adoption of circular economy approaches.

The broad spectrum of circular economy approaches will be in scope, for example:

  • repair
  • reuse
  • remanufacture
  • recycle
  • regeneration

Projects are particularly encouraged that focus on retaining the maximum amount of value in a product or system.

We aim to fund projects with direct or indirect commercial outcomes for the partners. For example, a project to improve understanding where the outputs would be made freely available to build the knowledge base of the broader NICER programme, would be in scope.

We want to fund a portfolio of projects, across the range of resource flows covered by the Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres and types of projects.

Applicants must consider the benefits, risks, costs and trade-offs associated with adopting a more circular approach.

The focus on circular economy in this competition does not assume how best to deliver environmental, social, cultural, economic and technical benefits for any particular resource flow.

Your project can focus on one or more of the following examples:

  • piloting the introduction of a circular economy business model
  • development or improvement of products and processes to enable remanufacturing, repair and retention of value
  • increasing understanding and exploitation of material flow data in a defined place (for example; city, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP), cluster, region)
  • scaling-up of credible circular economy feasibility studies
  • evaluating whether proposed circular economy approaches are more sustainable when considering broader life cycle thinking

Other focus areas that clearly address the challenges of transitioning to a circular economy are welcomed.

Specific themes

Your project must align with at least one of the resource flows covered by the Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres:

Research categories

We will fund feasibility projects, industrial research projects and experimental development projects, as defined in the guidance on categories of research.

Projects we will not fund

We are not funding projects that are:

  • dependent on export performance – for example giving a subsidy to a baker on the condition that it exports a certain quantity of bread to another country
  • dependent on domestic inputs usage - for example giving a subsidy to a baker on the condition that it uses 50% UK flour in their product

11 October 2021
Competition opens
18 October 2021
Online briefing event: register to attend
8 December 2021 11:00am
Competition closes
19 January 2022
Applicants notified

Before you start

You must read the guidance on applying for a competition on the Innovation Funding Service before you start.

What we ask you

The application is split into 3 sections:

  1. Project details.
  2. Application questions.
  3. Finances.

1. Project details

This section provides background for the assessors and is not scored.

Application team

Decide which organisations will work with you on the project. Invite people from those organisations to help complete the application.

Application details

The lead applicant must complete this section. Give your project’s title, start date and duration.

Subsidy Basis

Will the project, including any related activities, you want Innovate UK to fund, affect trade between Northern Ireland and the EU?

All participants must complete this section.

Research category

Select the type of research you will undertake.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

We collect and report on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) data to address under-representation in business innovation and ensure equality, diversity and inclusion across all our activities.

All participants must complete this EDI survey and the lead must then select yes in the application question. The survey will ask you questions on your gender, age, ethnicity and disability status. You will always have the option to ‘prefer not to say’ if you do not feel comfortable sharing this information.

Project summary

Describe your project briefly and be clear about what makes it innovative. We use this section to assign experts to assess your application.

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

Public description

Describe your project in detail, and in a way that you are happy to see published. Do not include any commercially sensitive information. If we award your project funding, we will publish this description. This could happen before you start your project.

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

Scope

Describe how your project fits the scope of the competition. If your project is not in scope it will be immediately rejected and will not be sent for assessment. We will give you feedback on why.
Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

2. Application questions

The assessors will score your answers to questions 2 to 11, question 1 is not scored. You will receive feedback for each scored question.

You must answer all questions. Your answer to each question can be up to 400 words long. Do not include any website addresses (URLs) in your answers.

Question 1. Applicant location (not scored)

You must state the name of your organisation along with your full registered address.

If you are working in collaboration you must also state the name and full registered address of all your partners.

We are collecting this information to understand the geographical location of all participants of a project.

Question 2. Need or challenge

What is the business need, technological challenge or market opportunity behind your innovation?

Describe or explain:

  • the main motivation for the project
  • the business need, technological challenge or market opportunity
  • the nearest current state-of-the-art, including those near market or in development, and its limitations
  • any work you have already done to respond to this need, for example if the project focuses on developing an existing capability or building a new one
  • the wider economic, social, environmental, cultural or political challenges which are influential in creating the opportunity, such as incoming regulations, using our Horizons tool if appropriate

Question 3. Approach and innovation

What approach will you take and where will the focus of the innovation be?

Describe or explain:

  • how you will respond to the need, challenge or opportunity identified
  • how you will improve on the nearest current state-of-the-art identified
  • whether the innovation will focus on the application of existing technologies in new areas, the development of new technologies for existing areas or a totally disruptive approach
  • the freedom you have to operate
  • how this project fits with your current product, service lines or offerings
  • how it will make you more competitive
  • the nature of the outputs you expect from the project (for example report, demonstrator, know-how, new process, product or service design) and how these will help you to target the need, challenge or opportunity identified

You can submit one appendix. It can include diagrams and charts. It must be a PDF, up to 2 A4 pages long and no larger than 10MB in size. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 4. Team and resources

Who is in the project team and what are their roles?

Describe or explain:

  • the roles, skills and experience of all members of the project team that are relevant to the approach you will be taking
  • the resources, equipment and facilities needed for the project and how you will access them, particularly in the light of any continuing COVID-19 restrictions
  • the details of any vital external parties, including subcontractors, who you will need to work with to successfully carry out the project
  • (if your project is collaborative) the current relationships between project partners and how these will change as a result of the project
  • any roles you will need to recruit for taking into account the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the team structure

You can submit one appendix. This can include a short summary of the main people working on the project to support your answer and a letter of support from the relevant NICER centre, if you are not including them as a project partner. It must be a PDF and can be up to 4 A4 pages long and no larger than 10MB in size. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 5. Market awareness

What does the market you are targeting look like?

Describe or explain:

  • the markets (domestic, international or both) you will be targeting in the project, and any other potential markets
  • the size of the target markets for the project outcomes, backed up by references where available
  • the structure and dynamics of the target markets, including customer segmentation, together with predicted growth rates within clear timeframes
  • the target markets’ main supply or value chains and business models, and any barriers to entry that exist
  • the current UK position in targeting these markets
  • the size and main features of any other markets not already listed

If your project is highly innovative, where the market may be unexplored, describe or explain:

  • what the market’s size might to be
  • how your project will try to explore the market’s potential

Question 6. Outcomes and route to market

How are you going to grow your business and increase your productivity into the long term as a result of the project?

Describe or explain:

  • your current position in the markets and supply or value chains outlined, and whether you will be extending or establishing your market position
  • your target customers or end users, and the value to them, for example why they would use or buy your product
  • your route to market, particularly if COVID-19 has changed market dynamics
  • how you are going to profit from the innovation, including increased revenues or cost reduction
  • how the innovation will affect your productivity and growth, in both the short and the long term
  • how you will protect and exploit the outputs of the project, for example through know-how, patenting, designs or changes to your business model
  • your strategy for targeting the other markets you have identified during or after the project
  • how learning from your project will benefit the collaborating Centre(s) and, if applicable, inform the broader NICER programme

If there is any research organisation activity in the project, describe:

  • your plans to spread the project’s research outputs over a reasonable timescale
  • how you expect to use the results generated from the project in further research activities

If you do not seek direct commercial output or financial value for partners, explain how beneficial information and outputs delivered will be disseminated.

Describe or explain:

  • your target audiences or end users, and the value to them, such as why they would use the outcomes or information from your project
  • how you are going to benefit from the information, outcomes and innovation
  • how the outcomes will increase knowledge relevant to the supply chain and affect innovation, in both the short and the long term
  • how you will exploit and disseminate the outputs of the project, for example through know-how, stakeholder engagement or changes to your organisational approach

Question 7. Wider impacts

What impact might this project have outside the project team?

Describe, and where possible, measure the economic benefits from the project such as productivity increases and import substitution, to:

  • external parties
  • customers
  • others in the supply chain
  • broader industry
  • the UK economy

Describe, and where possible, measure:

  • any expected impact on government priorities
  • any expected environmental impacts, either positive or negative
  • any expected regional impacts of the project

Describe any expected social impacts, either positive or negative on, for example:

  • quality of life
  • social inclusion or exclusion
  • jobs, such as safeguarding, creating, changing or displacing them
  • education
  • public empowerment
  • health and safety
  • regulations
  • diversity

Question 8. Project management

How will you manage the project effectively?

Describe or explain:

  • the main work packages of the project, indicating the lead partner assigned to each and the total cost of each one
  • your approach to project management, identifying any major tools and mechanisms you will use to get a successful and innovative project outcome
  • the management reporting lines
  • your project plan in enough detail to identify any links or dependencies between work packages or milestones, taking into account the possible impact of further COVID-19 restrictions

You must submit a project plan or Gantt chart as an appendix to support your answer. It must be a PDF, up to 2 A4 pages long and no larger than 10MB in size. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 9. Risks

What are the main risks for this project?

Describe or explain:

  • the main risks and uncertainties of the project, including the technical, commercial, managerial and environmental risks, providing a risk register if appropriate
  • how you will mitigate these risks
  • any project inputs that are critical to completion, such as resources, expertise, data sets
  • any output likely to be subject to regulatory requirements, certification, ethical issues and so on, and how you will manage this

You must submit a risk register as an appendix to support your answer. It must be a PDF, up to 2 A4 pages long and no larger than 10MB in size. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 10. Added value

What impact would an injection of public funding have on the businesses involved?

Describe or explain:

  • whether this project could go ahead in any form without public funding and if so, the difference the public funding would make, such as a faster route to market, more partners or reduced risk
  • the likely impact of the project on the businesses of the partners involved
  • why you are not able to wholly fund the project from your own resources or other forms of private-sector funding, and what would happen if the application is unsuccessful
  • how this project would change the nature of R&D activity the partners would undertake, and the related spend

Question 11. Costs and value for money

How much will the project cost and how does it represent value for money for the team and the taxpayer?

In terms of the project goals, describe or explain:

  • the total eligible project costs
  • the grant you are requesting
  • how each partner will finance their contributions to the project
  • how this project represents value for money for you and the taxpayer
  • how it compares to what you would spend your money on otherwise
  • the balance of costs and grant across the project partners
  • any subcontractor costs and why they are critical to the project

3. Finances

Each organisation in your project must complete their own project costs, organisation details and funding details in the application. Academic institutions must complete and upload a Je-S form.

For full details on what costs you can claim see our project costs guidance.

Background and further information

This competition forms part of the £30 million UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research programme. The competition has been developed by the:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Innovate UK, with DEFRA and BEIS

This is funded through the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund.

The programme is supporting five interdisciplinary Centres from a £22.5million competition, alongside £2.5million in total of funding to enable small and medium enterprise involvement with Centres.

The programme is also supporting a Coordinator and integration Hub https://ce-hub.org/.

NICER programme review and evaluation process.

Funded projects are expected to engage with the overall NICER programme review and evaluation process.

If requested, you will be required to:

  • respond to surveys both written and telephone based
  • be interviewed virtually
  • attend workshops and programme review panels at a specified location or virtually
  • provide non-confidential information for case study development and external publication

This list is not exhaustive.

Find a project partner

If you want help to find a project partner, contact the Knowledge Transfer Network or the programme hub https://ce-hub.org/ .

Support for SMEs from Innovate UK EDGE

If you receive an award, you will be contacted about working with an innovation and growth specialist at Innovate UK EDGE. This service forms part of our funded offer to you.

These specialists focus on growing innovative businesses and ensuring that projects contribute to their growth. Working one-to-one, they can help you to identify your best strategy and harness world-class resources to grow and achieve scale.

We encourage you to engage with EDGE, delivered by a knowledgeable and objective specialist near you.

Contact us

If you need more information about how to apply or you want to submit your application in Welsh, email support@innovateuk.ukri.org or call 0300 321 4357. Our phone lines are open from 9am to 11:30am and 2pm to 4:30pm, Monday to Friday (excluding bank holidays).

Innovate UK is committed to making support for applicants accessible to everyone.


We can provide help for applicants who face barriers when making an application. This might be as a result of a disability, neurodiversity or anything else that makes it difficult to use our services. We can also give help and make other reasonable adjustments for you if your application is successful.

If you think you need more support, it is important that you contact our Customer Support Service as early as possible during your application process. You should aim to contact us no later than 10 working days before the competition closing date.

Need help with this service? Contact us