Funding competition Business Basics: boosting SME productivity (trial strand)

In this competition strand we are funding trials aimed at encouraging SMEs to adopt productivity-boosting technology or business practices.

This competition is now closed.

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Competition sections


The government announced the Business Basics Programme in its Industrial Strategy. The programme will test innovative ways of encouraging micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to adopt existing technologies and business practices that can boost their productivity. In doing so the programme aims to add to the evidence base of what works in driving up SME productivity.

The funding will be used to develop and trial ideas for increasing the adoption of productivity-boosting technology and business practices among SMEs. It will also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of these ideas in the short, medium and long term.

This is the first phase of the Business Basics Fund. This strand of funding is for undertaking full scale trials. At the same time we are running another strand for proof of concept (PoC) projects.

There is the potential for successful trials to apply for further funding to scale up in the future.

Collaborations are encouraged. Private organisations must work with at least one public sector or not for profit partner.

If your project’s total costs or duration fall outside of our eligibility criteria, contact us at least 10 days before the competition closes.

Funding type


Project size

You can apply for up to £400,000 in grant funding to run a trial. Projects must start by 1 November 2018, end by 31 December 2019 and can last between 3 and 12 months. Evaluation of the longer term impact may continue after the end of the project.

Who can apply

To be eligible for funding you must:

  • be an England based public sector organisation (such as a local authority, Local Enterprise Partnership or Growth Hub)
  • be a university or research and technology organisation (RTO)
  • be a charity, representative body or trade association
  • be an England based business of any size working in collaboration with the above
  • carry out your project in England, because business support is a devolved matter
  • be willing to have the results of your work independently evaluated and published openly
  • agree to have your evaluation plan reviewed by BEIS or its partners prior to the trial commencing
  • agree to participate in the overall evaluation of the programme
  • share data from the programme with BEIS and its partners for purposes of monitoring, research and evaluation in the short, medium and long term
  • involve the target audience of SMEs

The lead organisation must claim funding through this competition. Projects can include partners that do not receive any funding. Their costs will count towards the total project costs but they will not count as collaborators.

Organisations claiming funding must have a legal entity. As such, LEPs and Growth Hubs may need to consider working with a lead local authority or other organisation.

Both single bidders and collaborations are welcome.

Any organisation can be involved in any number of applications.

If you are applying for funding to deliver a trial you are expected to have an evaluation plan in place, and ideally an evaluation partner.

Find out if your business fits the EU definition of an SME.


If Innovate UK judges that your proposal is not materially different from your previous proposal, it will be classed as a resubmission.

If your application is unsuccessful, you can reapply with the same proposal taking into account the feedback received from the assessors. You can reapply into another round of this competition or another competition. In other words, you can make a maximum of 2 applications in total with any proposal.


A share of up to £2 million is available for the Business Basics Programme across both strands of this competition.

Organisations or collaborations can apply for a total of up to £400,000 for a trial project.

All activities must be in line with state aid rules. We will accept applications for grants:

  1. If it can be shown that the project does not involve the granting of aid.
  2. Where any grant provided is under the “de minimis” level of state aid (less than €200,000 over 3 consecutive fiscal years, to a single undertaking). See pages 20 to 21 of the state aid manual for further guidance.
  3. Where the project meets the requirements of article 25 (Collaborative Research and Development) as set out in the General Block Exemption Regulations (GBER). If the grant is awarded under a GBER category, this will affect the percentage of your project costs that can be grant funded. Pages 39 to 41 of the state aid manual gives further guidance.

In your application you need to describe how the project proposal meets state-aid funding rules, in relation to the above conditions. Each project partner should use the option that is most appropriate for them. We are not authorised to provide advice on state aid and you should seek independent guidance.

If you are applying under options 1 or 2, you can receive funding of 100% of your project costs. For universities, this equates to 80% of Full Economic Costs (FEC).

If you are applying under option 3, bids must comply with the project funding requirement applicable under the relevant category of the regulation. In this strand, we expect to fund feasibility studies, industrial research projects or experimental development projects.

If you are applying under the feasibility studies and industrial research categories, you could get funding for your eligible project costs of:

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

If you are applying under the experimental development projects category, you could get funding for your eligible project costs of:

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

Your proposal

The Business Basics Programme aims to test innovative ways of encouraging SMEs to adopt existing technologies and business practices that boost productivity.

Your proposal should relate to the actions SMEs can take to become more productive:

  • adopting existing technology (such as accountancy, CRM or HR software, cloud computing or payment systems)
  • adopting modern business practices (such as leadership and management capabilities or developing an innovation culture)
  • or a combination of the above

The proposal should focus on your:

  • ideas for increasing the adoption of technology and/or modern business practices among your target group of SMEs and the trial you will run to test the effectiveness of your ideas
  • plan to evaluate the effectiveness of your idea through a trial

Your project needs to:

  • demonstrate the potential to support technology or business practice adoption which could be scaled up
  • be focused on innovative approaches
  • demonstrate the potential to provide robust evidence to support future policy making
  • provide an output evaluation report which details the evidence and conclusions from the trial
  • be focused on improving productivity among lower-productivity firms (not ‘frontier’ firms)
  • meet time and budget constraints
  • comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

Due to the nature of potential projects, SMEs which take part in trials are likely to receive some benefit as an end beneficiary of the grant. Any SME taking part in trials can only receive state aid up to the de minimis level. You should ensure you have adequate processes in place for complying with de minimis rules in your project.

Data collection and sharing

In applying for this competition you agree to share all data collected as part of the trial with BEIS and any appointed contractor. This is for further research or evaluation purposes. In accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), you (the data controller) must ensure the appropriate data privacy notice is given to recruited businesses. This should be at the point data is collected.

We are looking to fund a portfolio of projects that will test a variety of techniques and approaches in different sectors and settings.

Specific themes

We are interested in projects which increase SMEs’ adoption of existing technology and/or business practices. We are open to your suggestions. Some ideas for consideration are:

  • increasing awareness of the benefits of technology and business practices
  • developing leadership vision and desire for adopting new technology and business practice
  • making the costs and benefits of adoption clearer and more certain
  • providing trusted advice, and partnership, including peer to peer support

Project types

Projects in this funding strand must run trials of different approaches. These should increase the uptake of existing technology or modern business practices among SMEs.

Funding can be used to develop entirely new ideas or refine and improve existing ones. This can be part of your existing programme of work, or a new programme you want to initiate.

Projects we will not fund

We will not fund projects that:

  • are not focused on increasing the adoption of existing technology or modern business practices
  • do not specifically address the target audience of mid-low productivity SMEs
  • do not demonstrate the potential to generate robust evidence or have a measurable outcome
  • do not align with our scope and objectives

26 June 2018
Competition opens
12 July 2018
Briefing recording.
9 August 2018
Second briefing webinar.
4 September 2018 12:00pm
Competition closes
21 September 2018
Invite to interview.
28 September 2018
Interview date.
5 October 2018 4:34pm
Applicants notified

Before you start

Please read the general guidance for applicants. It will help your chances of submitting a quality application.

When you start an application you will be prompted to create an account as the lead applicant or sign in as a representative of your organisation. You will need an account to track the progress of your application.

As the lead applicant you will be responsible for:

  • collecting the information for your application
  • representing your organisation in leading the project if your application is successful

You will be able to invite:

  • colleagues to contribute to the application
  • other organisations to collaborate in the project if your application is successful
Collaborating organisations can be other businesses, research organisations, public sector organisations or charities.


If your application is successful at the written stage you will be invited to attend an interview, where you will need to give a presentation.

Presentations should be a maximum of 10 minutes in length, with no more than 10 slides (using Microsoft PowerPoint). Please do not include any video or embedded web links. This will be followed by 20 minutes of questions and answers.

You must submit your presentation slides to Innovate UK by the date stated in the email we will send inviting you to an interview. You will not be able to make any changes to the presentation after this date.

Up to 4 people from your project can attend the interview panel. Agree with your consortium who will attend, ideally one person from each organisation, and send us their names by the date stated in the invitation email. Make sure they will be available on all of the published interview dates. We are unable to reschedule slots once allocated.

You will be expected to answer questions based on your application form and assessor feedback from the written stage.

What we will ask you

The application is split into 3 sections:

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

1. Application details

Explain your project. This section is not scored, but we will use it to decide whether the project fits with the scope of the competition. If it does not, it will be immediately rejected.

Application details

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

Under research category, if you are claiming 100% funding you can select any research category. If any partner is claiming match funding please select the relevant research category for your project.

Project summary

Describe your project briefly, and be clear about what makes it innovative. Make sure you state what type of project you are proposing. Describe how the partners in your project will comply with state aid Rules (see the ‘Funding’ section). 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. Please 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.


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

Your answers to the questions below will be scored by the assessors. You will receive feedback from the assessors for each question.

Your answer to each question can be up to 800 words long. Do not include any URLs in your answers unless we have explicitly requested a link to a video.

Question 1. Barriers and opportunities

What barriers to and/or opportunities for technology and/or business practice adoption in SMEs will you address?

Describe or explain:

  • whether you will be focusing on the adoption of existing technology, modern business practices or a combination of these, outlining the evidence of the link between your chosen focus and productivity
  • what barriers to and/or opportunities for SMEs to adopt technology or business practices you will be looking to address
  • the evidence of these barriers or opportunities and your understanding of them (this may draw on other research, or your own information)
  • what your target audience of SMEs is and why have you chosen this as your area of focus

Question 2. Solution and approach

What is your idea for overcoming these barriers and/or taking these opportunities, and why do you think it will be successful?


  • what approach, or approaches, you are proposing to use to overcome the barriers or take the opportunities you have set out in question 1
  • what your reasons are for taking this approach
  • what evidence supports your approach or approaches and why will it work, which could be referred to as your ‘theory of change’
  • what work have you done to develop and test your idea and what further work is needed to develop your approach or approaches
  • how this fits with your existing strategy and activity, and whether it represents a new programme, or an addition or change to an existing one
  • how your proposal represents innovation in this area
  • how it will add to the overall evidence base of what works in improving SME productivity

Question 3. Impact evaluation

How will you evaluate the impact of your approach, and what evidence will you produce?

A central success criterion for the Business Basics Programme is to generate robust evidence of “what works.” Trials will be expected to effectively demonstrate the causal link between the approach and the desired outcomes. For this we will expect trials to use a control (comparison group). Further to this only projects which use one of the following methods will be considered:

  • methods which randomise into treatment and control groups (achieving 5 on the Maryland Scientific Methods Scale) are preferred
  • credible methods exploiting quasi-randomness (achieving 4 on the Maryland Scientific Methods Scale) would be accepted

We encourage a ’mixed method’ approach, where qualitative evidence is used to improve the understanding of the context and causality alongside the quantitative approaches

Roles and responsibilities

Your evaluation should measure any short-term outputs and medium-term outcomes. You can include:

  • increase in SME awareness of technology and/or management practice
  • change in attitude towards use of technology and/or management practice
  • increase in SME ability to introduce change to organisation
  • successful adoption of new technologies and/or management practices

BEIS (and/or partners) will carry out the longer term economic evaluation of the impact of your approach. However, your evaluation should try to measure any improvement to firm performance or productivity resulting from the adoption of new technologies and/or management practices. For example you could compare self-reported estimates from the SMEs in the trial.

You should be clear in your plan when you expect evidence of short and medium-term outcomes to be available for review by BEIS and/or partners.

We can provide oversight and advice but the design, implementation, and analysis of the trial is your responsibility.

Please tell us your evaluation plan, this should include:

  • a ‘logic model’ or ‘customer journey map’ showing:
  • what data will be collected, where from and how
  • short-term outputs and longer-term outcomes that will be measured
  • a timeline showing what evidence you will produce and when evaluation evidence (showing short-term outcomes and longer-term impacts) will be available
  • a description of the evaluation methodologies being employed (e.g. Randomised Control Trial, quasi-experimental technique)
  • description of the sources of data you will collect and how (e.g. use of survey)
  • the number and type businesses will be recruited into your trial, what scale of impacts you will be able to detect, and the assumptions that underpin this
  • the firm-level data that will be collected. This should include unique business identification numbers so the data can be matched with administrative data sources (e.g. HMRC) for longer-term economic analysis to be carried out by BEIS and/or partners following the completion of the trial. This should aim to include one or more of the following:

  1. Companies House Registration Number
  2. VAT Number
  3. PAYE Number
  4. Unique Tax Reference Number

  • if collecting unique business identifiers is not practical for your proposal please state why (for example, if you plan a light touch activity involving minimal interaction with individual businesses) an outline of the ethical considerations and procedures where these are applicable
  • an outline of the anticipated challenges you expect to face in this evaluation (for example, challenges to establishing causality and to the validity and reliability of the results) and your strategies for overcoming them
  • an outline of your plan for Cost Benefit and Cost Effectiveness Analysis
  • confirmation that you will obtain the necessary permissions to use participants’ data for research
  • the deliverables you will produce (such as the trial protocol, final evaluation report, presentations, data set)

Your trial protocol and evaluation plan will be reviewed and signed off before the trial starts. BEIS and its partners will expect regular updates from you during the project, including at key milestones. All outputs will be subject to review before publication.

Please state that you agree to work within these conditions.

Please state that you agree to provide data to BEIS, and its partners where relevant, to support longer term evaluation of the programme.

You can submit a single appendix as a PDF no larger than 1MB and up to 2 pages long to support your answer. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 4. Project Delivery

How will you deliver your project successfully?

Describe or explain:

  • who you will need to work with to deliver the project, including partners and stakeholders
  • the process for recruiting the target group of SMEs to the trial

Please set out your project plan including:

  • the details of any vital external parties, including sub-contractors, you will need to work with to successfully carry out the project
  • the roles, skills and experience of all members of the project team that are relevant to 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 gaps in the team that will need to be filled

What are the main risks to the project and how will you manage or mitigate these? Please include:

  • your risk register
  • any legal or ethical considerations that need to be managed

You can submit a single appendix as a PDF no larger than 1MB and up to 2 pages long to support your answer. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 5. Value for money

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

Describe or explain:

  • the total project cost and the grant being requested in terms of the project goals
  • the grant split and financial contribution from each of the project members
  • any sub-contractor costs and why they are critical to the project
  • how this project represents value for money for the taxpayer and how it compares to what you would spend your money on otherwise
  • if this project could go ahead in any form without public funding and, if so, the difference the public funding would make, such as faster to market, more partners and reduced risk

3. Finances

The finances section asks each organisation in your project to complete their own project costs, organisational details and funding details. You will need to calculate and manually enter the grant percentage you are claiming depending on the type of state aid applicable to your project. Academics will need to complete and upload a Je-S form. For full details on what costs you can claim please see our project costs guidance.

Background and further information

Background to Business Basics

The Government’s Industrial Strategy set out our aim to create an economy that boosts productivity and earning power throughout the UK.

The objective of the Business Basics Programme is to identify and test the most effective, scalable interventions which encourage SMEs to adopt existing technology and management best practices that drive productivity improvements.

The main element of the programme is the “Business Basics Fund” which will include a series of open, competitive calls.

This programme is funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The fund is being administered by Innovate UK on behalf of BEIS.

1.Objectives of the Business Basics Fund

Raise the productivity of small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs)

  • identify and test the most effective, scalable interventions which encourage SMEs to adopt productivity boosting existing technology and modern business practices
  • test which interventions have the most impact on SME productivity

Drive innovation?

  • source new ideas from traditional and non-traditional sources
  • take a dynamic, experimental approach in order to learn and develop as the project develops
  • support new initiatives and leave a legacy of quality data and evaluation to inform future research

Enable better investment decisions at a local and national level

  • provide a new, robust evidence base for those interventions which are the most effective in raising productivity
  • take an inclusive approach such as by involving SMEs from different areas and different sectors, and focus on the transferability and scalability of interventions

2.Further sources of guidance and information

We recommend you refer to the BEIS guidance for evaluating business interventions for guidance on planning an evaluation.

You may also find the following resources useful when thinking about your Evaluation Plan:

Other background reading

Extra help

For general support on your application, please call the competition helpline on 0300 321 4357 or email us at

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