Funding competition Circular Economy for SMEs - innovating with NICER, round 2

UK registered businesses can apply for a share of up to £1.5 million to research, test and develop step-change circular economy approaches.

This competition is now closed.

Start new application

Competition sections


Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation, will invest up to £1.5 million in circular economy innovation projects.

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

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 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


Project size

Your project’s total costs must be between £100,000 and £150,000.

Who can apply

Your project

Your project must:

  • have total costs between £100,000 and £150,000
  • start no earlier than 1 May 2023
  • end by 31 October 2024
  • last between 12 and 18 months
  • carry out all of its project work in the UK
  • intend to exploit the results from or in the UK

Your application must include a letter of support from at least one of the UKRI Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres or the NICER CE-hub. The letter must demonstrate alignment of your proposed activities to one or more Centres’ aims and objectives. Collaboration directly with the centres or the hub as a project partner is encouraged but not essential.

To allow sufficient time for the centres to consider your proposal for support, you should contact them prior to 16th November 2022, or earlier if you are looking to involve them as project partners.

You must only include eligible project costs in your application.

Under current restrictions, this competition will not fund any procurement, commercial, business development or supply chain activity with any Russian entity as lead, partner or subcontractor. This includes any goods or services originating from a Russian source.

If your total project’s costs or duration falls outside of our eligibility criteria, you must provide justification by email to 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 application has not been approved by us, you will be made ineligible. Your application will then 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)

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 when 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 project costs.


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 provide a detailed rationale, evidence of the potential UK contractors you approached and the reasons why they were unable to work with you. We will not accept a cheaper cost as a sufficient reason to use an overseas subcontractor.

All subcontractor costs must be justified and appropriate to the total project costs.

Number of applications

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

If an business is not leading any application, it can collaborate in up to 3 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 at all times make sure 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.


Up to £1.5 million has been allocated to fund innovation projects in this competition. Funding will be in the form of a grant.

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 and Hub 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 project costs if you are an RTO, charity, not for 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.

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

We want to fund a portfolio of projects, across the range of resource flows and topics covered by the Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres and Hub 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 (LEPs), 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 the NICER programme and be supported by a NICER centre or the CE-hub.

Resource flows covered by the Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres:

Themes covered by the CE-hub:

  • cross cutting research to accelerate the transition
  • data, modelling and measuring impact
  • knowledge sharing
  • roadmapping

Further details on themes and potential collaboration topics can be found at NICER CE-hub

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:

  • do not meet the competition eligibility or scope criteria
  • are commercialisation activities such as marketing and sales
  • 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
  • are 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

13 October 2022
Competition opens
16 November 2022
Last date for contacting NICER centres to request Letter of support
7 December 2022 11:00am
Competition closes
6 February 2023
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.

Research category

Select the type of research you will undertake.

Project summary

Describe your project briefly and be clear about what makes it innovative. We use this section to assign the right 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 300 words long.


Describe how your project fits the scope of the competition. If your project is not in scope it will not be eligible for funding.

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

2. Application questions

The assessors will score all your answers apart from question 1. You will receive feedback for each scored question. Find out more about how our assessors assess.

You must answer all questions. Do not include any website addresses (URLs) in your answers.

Question 1. Applicant location (not scored)

You must state the name and full registered address of your organisation, any partners and subcontractors working on your project.

We are collecting this information to understand the geographical location of all applicants.

Your answer can be up to 400 words long

Question 2. Your idea and innovation

What is your idea and innovation, and how can it create a step-change in the adoption of circular economy approaches?


  • the specific innovation you propose to develop and how this is clearly different from alternative solutions that are already available
  • the specific need or challenge you propose to address and who would benefit from it immediately and longer term
  • whether the innovation will focus on the development of new solutions for existing areas, or a totally disruptive approach or idea
  • 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
  • any challenges or opportunities relating to equality, diversity and inclusion arising from your project
  • the wider economic, social, environmental, cultural or political challenges which are influential in creating the opportunity, such as incoming regulations

Your answer can be up to 600 words long.

Question 3. Justification for NICER programme funding

Why is your innovation and proposal suitable for NICER programme funding; how will your project add value to the programme; and why do you need public funding to help you succeed?


  • what involvement you will have with the NICER centres or hub through your project
  • any other routes of investment, including alternatives from the public and private sectors, that you have already explored, why they are unsuitable, or why your application was turned down
  • why you consider NICER programme funding to be the right route for your project, organisation and where applicable, your consortium
  • what will happen to your project if you are not successful in securing NICER programme funding
  • any other activities your organisation or consortium would pursue if you are not investing resources in this project
  • what clear advantages would public funding offer your project that other routes would not; for example, enabling partnerships, leveraging wider investment, reducing risk and accelerating routes to market, this list is not exhaustive
  • why public funding is justified as a means to fund this project

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

You must upload a letter of support from a NICER centre or the NICER CE-hub 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 4. The potential market

What is your target market and what is your strategy for securing the market opportunity you have identified, including your route to market and commercialisation of project outputs?


  • the size and current structure of the specific markets you are targeting, including international, domestic, or both, supported by current market data
  • the structure and dynamics of the target markets and how your innovation will change or impact these, including customer segmentation, competitors, trends affecting market growth, and predicted growth rates within clear timeframes
  • who is ready to commit to buying your innovation, and how you will ensure significant return on investment (ROI), including evidence from any end user or market research that you have already carried out
  • your agreed plan for exploitation, your proposed route to market and commercialisation, including your business models and any partnerships you have formed or will be looking to form to secure market share
  • the export potential for your project outputs
  • any barriers to entry and how you will overcome these
  • your freedom to operate and your project outcome’s potential for significant but realistic returns

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


  • 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

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

Question 5. Impact and benefits

What will be the impact of receiving the grant, both for your business and outside your organisation?


  • the nature of the outputs you expect from your project, for example, reports, demonstrator, know how, new process, product or service design, and how these will help you to target the need, challenge or opportunity identified
  • how your project fits with your current product, service lines or offerings and how you are going to profit from the innovation, including increased revenues or cost reduction
  • how your innovation will affect your share of the market, productivity and growth, in both the short and the long term
  • the timescale needed to realise these benefits
  • how your innovation will impact on the creation, safeguarding or displacing of jobs, both within your consortium and the wider sector
  • how you will protect and exploit the outputs of the project, for example through know-how, patenting, designs, or changes to your business model
  • the sustained, long term expected impacts on the UK economy, society, and the environment, to your customers, supply chains and the broader sector
  • any expected regional impacts
  • any negative impacts or trade-offs that you have identified, and how will you mitigate against these
  • how you plan to use the project to further your understanding of any sustainability trade-offs, through developing the life cycle thinking and analysis
  • how you have considered equality, diversity and inclusion in the development and design of your innovation, for example unintended exclusion of minority groups

Your answer can be up to 600 words long.

Question 6. Delivering your project

Who is in the project team, why do you have the right skills and experience to succeed, and how will you successfully deliver your project?


  • the roles, skills, expertise and experience, including in project and risk management, of all team members, which are relevant to ensuring successful delivery of the project
  • the diversity of the project team that is relevant to your approach, observing confidentiality of protected characteristics
  • your capability to deliver in the required timeframe, given your existing business activities or constraints
  • any roles you will need to recruit for, and how you will promote equality, diversity and inclusion
  • the resources, equipment and facilities needed for the project and how you will access them
  • the details of any vital external parties, including subcontractors, who you will need to work with to successfully compete the project and why these tasks cannot be carried out by project partners
  • if your project is collaborative, the current relationships between project partners and how these will change as a result of the project
  • your approach to project management, identifying any major tools and mechanisms you will use to secure a successful project outcome
  • how your project team will deliver outcomes and impact beyond the life of the project, and how you will ensure swift, successful commercialisation following project completion

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

You must submit two appendices to support your answer.

You must submit a project plan in sufficient detail to identify any links, dependencies or potential duplication between work packages or milestones.

Your appendix 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.

You must also submit a risk register, indicating the main risks for your project, including, but not limited to, technical, commercial, managerial, environmental and if, appropriate, risks associated with COVID-19. You must include any identified interdependencies between these risks, the likely impact, and your mitigation strategy. You should pay particular attention to how you will mitigate project delivery risks with your immediate and extended teams, for example your supply chain or end users.

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 7. Value for money

How will you spend your grant funding and how does this represent good value for money for the taxpayer?


  • what the funding will be spent on, and how are costs distributed between consortium partners, if applicable
  • a breakdown of costs aligned with tasks or work packages, and how best value for money has been calculated, for example quotation comparison
  • how you and any project partners will fund their contribution to the project and ensure that this is in place, ready for the latest possible start date stated in the competition’s eligibility criteria
  • any subcontractor costs and how these have been calculated
  • how you will fund and resource any post-project activities to continue your journey towards commercialisation
  • any wider support that you may need to access, for example, partnerships, private finance and export advice and how this is critical to project success

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

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 (NICER) 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 £22.5 million competition, alongside £2.5 million in total of funding to enable small and medium enterprise involvement with Centres.

The programme is also supporting a Coordinator and integration Hub

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.

Data sharing

This competition is operated by Innovate UK on behalf of UK Research and Innovation.

Information provided to Innovate UK is used to support the assessment process, inform funding decisions and manage, operate and evaluate grant awards.

Any relevant information provided to or generated by Innovate UK in respect of your application may be accessible to other UKRI employees and shared in confidence with partner organisations and other third parties where necessary to the delivery and evaluation of the programme. This includes, but is not restricted to:

  • information provided in the application and generated throughout the assessment process, including the personal details of applicants and others named in the application
  • scoring and feedback on the application, and information on decisions
  • information received and generated during the management, administration and evaluation of the grant, such as Monitoring Officer reports and Independent Accountant Reports

Information on how application and award information is used can be found in UKRI’s Privacy Notice accessible here and Innovate UK’s information management policy is accessible here.

Innovate UK complies with the requirements of GDPR, and is committed to upholding the data protection principles, and protecting your information. The Information Commissioner’s Office also has a useful guide for organisations, which outlines the data protection principles.

Find a project partner

If you want help to find a project partner, contact the Innovate UK KTN.

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 Innovate UK 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 or call 0300 321 4357.

Our phone lines are open from 9am to 5pm, 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