Funding competition SBRI Competition - Assays for SARS-CoV-2 cellular immune responses

Organisations can apply for a share of £1.5million inclusive of VAT, to develop assay systems to define the magnitude and profile of cellular immune responses to SARS-CoV-2.

This competition is now closed.

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Competition sections


This is a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition funded by UKRI. The competition is part of the COVID-19 National Core Studies (NCS) programme. The programmes’ objective is to address key research questions in support of the UK government’s response to COVID-19.

The aim of this competition is to develop effective assay system approaches to measuring human cellular immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 natural infection or vaccines, to improve clinical management and vaccine deployment.

Any adoption and implementation of a solution from this competition would be subject of a separate, possible competitive, procurement exercise. This competition does not cover the purchase of any solution.

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

Funding type


Project size

Projects can range in size up to total costs of £700,000, inclusive of VAT and between 1 to 12 months duration.

Who can apply

Your project

Projects must:

  • start on 01 October 2021
  • finish by 31 September 2022
  • last between 1 to 12 months.


To lead a project, you can:

Contracts will be awarded only to a single legal entity. We are looking for proposals that involve industrial and academic institutions as the lead and subcontractors. This work will still be the responsibility of the main contractor.

Eligibility overview

Here is a diagram showing a summary of eligibility.

This is a new way of showing you eligibility. Your feedback will help us to improve it.


A total of up to £1.5million, inclusive of VAT, is allocated for this competition.

We expect to fund up to 3 projects.

The total funding available for the competition can change. The funders have the right to:

  • adjust the provisional funding
  • apply a ‘portfolio’ approach

Research and development

Your application must have at least 50% of the contract value attributed directly and exclusively to R&D services, including solution exploration and design. R&D can also include prototyping and field-testing the product or service. This lets you incorporate the results of your exploration and design, and demonstrate that you can produce in quantity to acceptable quality standards.

R&D does not include:

  • commercial development activities such as quantity production
  • supply to establish commercial viability or to recover R&D costs
  • integration, customisation or incremental adaptations and improvements to existing products or processes

Subsidy Control

SBRI competitions involve procurement of R&D services at a fair market value and are not subject to Subsidy Control criteria that typically apply to grant funding.

Your proposal

The aim of this competition is to develop effective approaches to measuring human cellular immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 natural infection or vaccines, to improve clinical management and vaccine deployment.

Assays that both qualitatively and quantitatively measure the antibodies that recognise and neutralise SARS-CoV-2 are already available. Assays to measure cellular immune responses rapidly and reproducibly are more limited.

Your project must develop a novel assay system that can define the magnitude and profile of T-cell immune responses to SARS-CoV-2. Where it can be justified, other cellular responses, including B cell and innate cell responses, may be of interest.

Your project can focus on assays that work in a clinical or laboratory setting, whilst considering the ease, speed and reproducibility of sample preparation. Assays that use whole blood rather than requiring complex cell separation protocols would be a priority.

Your project must:

  • have a defined and justified intended use (research, clinical or diagnostic) for the assay
  • identify, justify and if required validate the biomarkers or cellular characteristics you propose to measure
  • develop or evaluate a sample preparation and assay format able to sample and measure the biomarkers or cellular characteristics with the required performance, test procedure and operational characteristics for the intended use

Research categories

Technical feasibility studies:

This means planned research or critical investigation to gain new knowledge and skills for developing new products, processes or services.

Projects we will not fund

We will not fund projects that:

  • do not appropriately combine academic, clinical and industry insight and expertise
  • do not engage with potential end users or customers to understand needs
  • cannot be undertaken within the working restrictions of coronavirus (COVID 19)
  • directly duplicate other UK government work you have already been funded to deliver
  • duplicate existing innovation, or work in progress by others
  • are new areas of research under the UKRI open call
  • have total eligible project costs over the amount allowed
  • cannot measure SARS-CoV-2 specific response without confounding cross-reactivity in pre-pandemic samples
  • are dependent on export performance
  • are dependent on domestic inputs usage
26 April 2021
Competition opens
4 May 2021
Online briefing event: watch the recording
26 May 2021 11:00am
Competition closes
9 July 2021 1:07pm
Applicants notified

Before you start

Text update 15 April 2021: we have added question 9 to ask applicants to list relevant publications.

By submitting an application you agree to the terms of the draft contract which is available once you start your application. The final contract will include any details you have agreed with the funding authority and will be sent to you if your application is successful. The contract is binding once the contract is returned by the applicant and signed by both parties. The terms and conditions included in the draft contract should not substantially change.

When you start an application on the Innovation Funding Service 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 from your organisation to contribute to the application.

What happens next

Your application will be assessed by independent expert assessors. All applicants will be provided feedback. The final portfolio of projects awarded contracts will be decided by a panel of experts.

What we will ask you

The application is split into 3 sections:

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

1. Project details

These sections are not scored.

Application details

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

Who made you aware of the competition?

Select a category to state who made you aware of the competition. You cannot choose more than one.

How long has your organisation been established for?

Select a category to state how long has your organisation been established for. You cannot choose more than one.

What is your organisation’s primary area focus?

Select a category to state your organisation’s primary focus area. You cannot choose more than one.

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.

You must complete this EDI survey and 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

Please provide a short summary of your project and describe how it meets the scope of the competition.

Describe your project briefly. Be clear about what makes it innovative and how it relates to the scope of the competition. How does it tackle different aspects of the challenge and how will it provide an integrated solution?

Give details of the lead organisation. Before you submit we expect you to have discussed your application within your own organisation and any other relevant organisations.

List any organisations you have named as subcontractors.

Your answer for this section can be up to 800 words long. This section is not scored, but we will use it to decide whether the project fits the scope of the competition. If it does not, it may be rejected.

Public description

Please provide a brief description of your project. If your application is successful, we will publish this description. This question is mandatory but we will not assess this content as part of your application.

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. We have the right to amend the description before publication if necessary, but will consult you about any changes.

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

2. Application questions

The assessors will score your answers to all questions except question 9 which is not scored.

Your answer to each question can be up to 400 words long. Do not include any URLs in your answers unless we have explicitly requested a link to a video.

Question 1. Proposed idea or technology

Provide a description and justification for your proposal and its intended use.

Explain how these have the potential to address the aims of the competition scope.

Describe the current state of development, validation or readiness of the solution. Include cellular characteristics to be measured, with justification for their selection, sample preparation and assay system with justification for suitability, given intended use .

Explain, if necessary, why your project includes animal studies.

You can submit a single appendix as a PDF containing images and diagrams to support your answer. It can be no larger than 10MB and up to 2 A4 pages long. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

This question will be scored against this assessment criterion: ‘How well does the proposal meet the challenge?’

Question 2. Technical project summary

Give a short background to the main technical challenges you are looking to address. Describe or explain:

  • how you will address the challenge
  • what the innovation is
  • the main technical deliverables
  • the research and development that will prove the scientific, environmental and commercial merit of the project
  • what might be achieved by deploying the innovation to address the selected challenge

This question will be scored against this assessment criterion: ‘How valid is the technical approach?’

Question 3. Current state of the art and intellectual property

Detail other products currently available on the market and how the innovation of your proposed project differentiates itself from them.

Include details of:

  • any existing intellectual property (IP)
  • its significance to your freedom to operate

This question will be scored against these assessment criteria: ‘How innovative is this project? How much does the project develop or employ novel concepts, approaches, methodologies, tools or technologies for this area?’

Question 4. Project plan and methodology

Describe your project plan and identify the main milestones.

The plan must be comprehensive. The emphasis throughout should be on practicality. We are seeking evidence that the technology works, can be made into a viable product and can achieve the proposed benefits.

You must describe or explain:

  • what resources will be needed to deliver the project
  • what the main success criteria would be
  • the identified project management processes that will ensure you achieve the milestones
  • the main technical, commercial and environmental risks and what you will do to mitigate them
  • how you would handle any IP issues which might arise during the project

Please ensure that if you are working with subcontractors you explain how you will maintain freedom to operate and fulfil the IP requirements detailed in the contract.

You must upload a project plan or Gantt chart as an appendix in PDF format no larger than 10MB and up to 2 A4 pages. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Download and complete the milestone template.

Your milestones must:

  • be clear
  • be defined using SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) criteria
  • be associated with the appropriate deliverables and payments
  • indicate your required payment schedule by month

Once you have completed the milestone template it must be uploaded in a PDF format to this question. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

This question will be assessed against these assessment criteria:

‘Does the proposal show a clear plan for establishing technical and commercial feasibility and the development of a proof of concept system?

Is there a clear management plan?

What are the main technical, commercial and environmental risks to project success?

Will these be effectively managed?

Are the milestones and evaluation procedures appropriate?’

Question 5. Technical team and expertise

Provide a brief description of your technical team. Include the expertise of each team member or subcontractor that is relevant to your application, outlining why they are critical to the project’s success and how much of their time will be spent on the project.

This question will be scored against this assessment criterion: ‘Does the applicant have the skills, capabilities and experience to deliver the intended benefits?’

Question 6. Costs and value for money

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

Describe or explain:

  • the total eligible project costs, inclusive of VAT, you are requesting in terms of the project goals
  • how this project represents value for money for you and the taxpayer

You can submit a single appendix as a spreadsheet no larger than 10MB and up to 2 A4 pages long to support your answer. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Costs quoted must reflect actual costs at a “fair market value” and not include profit.

Full Economic Cost (FEC) calculations are not relevant for SBRI competitions. SBRI is a competitive process and applications will come from a variety of organisations. Whatever calculation you use to arrive at your total eligible project costs your application will be assessed against applications from other organisations. Bear this in mind when calculating your total eligible project costs. You can include overheads but remember that this is a competitive process.

Total costs must include VAT. VAT is the responsibility of the invoicing business, and applications must list total costs inclusive of VAT. You will be asked if you are VAT registered before entering your project costs.

If you are a VAT registered organisation you will not need to enter your costs inclusive of VAT as the application form will calculate the VAT for you.

If you are not VAT registered then you can quote without VAT but you will not be able to increase invoice values to cover VAT later on.

The assessors are required to judge the application finances in terms of value for money. In other words, does the proposed cost for effort and deliverables reflect a fair market price? They will score your finances against this assessment criterion: ‘Are the budget and costs realistic, justified and appropriate for the aims and methods?

Please note information from the finances section will be used to support the assessment of this question. Proposed costs stated in this section must match those entered in the finance summary on your application.

Question 7. User or customer engagement

Describe or explain:

  • who your potential future users or customers are
  • how are you working with them to understand their needs and to validate your solution development.

This question will be scored against this assessment criterion: ‘How is effective engagement with appropriate potential future users or customers evidenced?

Question 8. Commercial potential

Describe how you would realise the commercial potential of your proposal and to what timescales, including a clear plan to deliver that and a route to market. Focus on your proposed customer’s needs but you may also mention the future commercial potential across the public or private sector and the international market.

How far is the challenge you are addressing shared across the public and private sector in the UK and further afield? Describe the competitive advantage that your proposal has over existing or alternative technologies that meet market needs.

This question will be scored against these assessment criteria: ‘Is there a clear commercial potential for a marketable product, process or service and a clear plan to deliver that and a clear route to market? How significant is the competitive advantage of this technology over existing technologies that meet the market’s needs?’

Question 9. List of relevant publications (not scored)

Please provide a list of relevant publications or white papers, that are directly or indirectly related to the scientific challenge in this competition.

3. Finances

Enter your project costs, organisation details and funding details. For full information on what costs you can claim, see our project costs guidance.

Background and further information

About Small Business Research Initiative competitions

SBRI provides innovative solutions to challenges faced by the public sector. This can lead to better public services and improved efficiency and effectiveness.

The SBRI programme:

  • supports economic growth and enables the development of innovative products and services through the public procurement of R&D
  • generates new business opportunities for companies
  • provides a route to market for their ideas
  • bridges the seed funding gap experienced by many early-stage companies

SBRI competitions are open to all organisations that can demonstrate a route to market for their solution. The SBRI scheme is particularly suited to small and medium-sized businesses, as the contracts are of relatively small value and operate on short timescales. Developments are 100% funded and focused on specific identified needs, increasing the chance of exploitation.

Suppliers for each project will be selected by an open competition process and retain the intellectual property generated from the project, with certain rights of use retained by the contracting authority. This is an excellent opportunity to establish an early customer for a new technology and to fund its development.

Background information for COVID-19 immunity competition

On 28 October 2020, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance announced the start of a series of National Core Studies (NCS) into COVID-19.

Six studies have been established to address the need to increase the scale of research, to build a response to governments near term, strategic, policy and operational needs. The six studies are:

  1. Epidemiology and Surveillance: Led by Professor Ian Diamond (ONS). Collecting and analysing data to inform appropriate levels of restrictions and protection against imminent outbreaks
  2. Clinical Trials Infrastructure: Led by Professor Patrick Chinnery (MRC) and Divya Chadha Manek (Vaccines Task Force and NIHR). Building on established NIHR infrastructure (and equivalent in DAs) to accelerate delivery of large scale Covid-19 trials for drugs and vaccines.
  3. Transmission and Environment: Led by Professor Andrew Curran (HSE). Understanding and mitigating transmission of the disease in workplace, transport and public places.
  4. Immunity: Led by Professor Paul Moss (University of Birmingham). Understanding immunity against Covid-19 to inform back-to-work policies.
  5. Longitudinal Health: Led by Nish Chaturvedi (UCL). Understanding the impact of Covid-19 on long term health to inform the design of mitigating policies.
  6. Data and Connectivity: Led by Professor Andrew Morris (HDR UK in partnership with ONS). Making UK-wide health and administrative data available for linkage and accessible to catalyse COVID-19 research.

Three of the studies (Immunity, Longitudinal Health and Data and Connectivity) have been adopted by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to offer solutions at scale that could not be addressed through the usual UKRI support mechanisms.

This competition is part of the Immunity NCS, whose aims are to define.

  • what are the immune correlates of vaccine response, how do these vary in people who are immune suppressed and how may this guide vaccine policy?
  • what are the immune mechanisms that underlie re-infection or vaccine failure, can this information be used to guide prediction and prevention?
  • how does the development of viral ‘Variants of Concern’ impact on the immune control of SARS-CoV-2 and how may this be overcome ?

The solutions developed for this competition will help to address all these questions.

Data sharing

This competition is jointly operated by Innovate UK, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the NCS programme (each an “agency”).

Your submitted application and any other information you provide at the application stage can be submitted to each agency on an individual basis for its storage, processing and use. Any relevant information produced during the application process concerning your application can be shared by one agency with the other, for its individual storage, processing and use.

This means that any information given to or generated by Innovate UK in respect of your application may be passed on to MRC, NCS and vice versa.

Innovate UK is directly accountable to you for its holding and processing of your information, including any personal data and confidential information. It is held in accordance with its Information Management Policy.

Innovate UK, MRC and NCS are directly accountable to you for their holding and processing of your information, including any personal data and confidential information. Data is held in accordance with their own policies. Accordingly, Innovate UK, MRC and NCS will be data controllers for personal data submitted during the application.

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.

Further help and information

If you want help to find an organisation to work with, contact the Knowledge Transfer Network.

If you have any questions about the scope requirements of this competition, email

If you need support with the application process, email us at or call the competition helpline on 0300 321 4357 between 9am and 11:30am or 2pm and 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.

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