UK grants that can give biotech startups a vital jump-start

Image/Elena Resko
uk biotech grant women Elena Resko

Grants are a vital lifeline that help biotech startups get off the ground, especially for underrepresented entrepreneurs. The Women in Synthetic Biology (WiSB) network recently gave detailed advice for helping U.K. biotech founders access this funding. 

Women are a big source of talent in the biotech space, both in academic life sciences and in founding biotech startups. However, startup companies led by women and other underrepresented genders tend to obtain fewer investments than those led by men.

“Generally, women ask for less and there are fewer women asking for investments. There’s definitely an imbalance,” said Liz Fletcher, director of business engagement and operations at the U.K.-based Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC). 

In March 2022, a team including Fletcher set up a U.K.-based support group called the WiSB network. The mission of the group is to support underrepresented groups in their efforts to set up biotech companies, including the pursuit of funding from private investments and public grants.

In a recent online event arranged by the WiSB, Claire Flanagan, senior innovation consultant at the firm PNO Consultants Ltd., provided guidance on the U.K. grant funding landscape. Flanagan observed that women make up a minority of clients using PNO to help them apply for grants, and only one in seven applicants to the business-focused grant scheme Innovate UK are women.

“Women aren’t very good at asking for help,” Flanagan remarked, adding that grant funding is a great stepping stone for helping female founders to get their startup off the ground.

While the tips from the discussion were designed to support the efforts of underrepresented genders in seeking out grants in the U.K., many of Flanagan’s tips can be useful for anyone seeking life sciences grants in the U.K. and other parts of Europe. 

Why biotech entrepreneurs should seek a grant

There are many strong reasons to apply for grants as a biotech entrepreneur. Grant programs provide funding with no equity requirement, so there are no obligations regarding intellectual property. It also allows companies to bring in new team members and equipment for productive collaborations. In addition, the application process often forces entrepreneurs to focus on producing a viable business plan, and be critical about the direction of their research.

Another key benefit of gaining grant funding is that many programs have a rigorous review process, so winners gain bonus points to their prestige. This can help the company attract private investors at a later stage.

“If you’ve spoken to investors and they said: ‘We’re interested, but we’re not quite sure,’ you can then go to them with your project output,” said Flanagan. “You’ll have preliminary data, you’ll have perhaps de-risked your idea and it puts you in a much stronger position.”

Where to look for biotech grants

Most grants in the U.K. are publicly funded by the government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), though there are some opportunities available with EU partners. Flanagan advised U.K.-based founders to prioritize national grants in the U.K. as they typically take less work to apply for than those in the EU.

“We’re very fortunate: we have a really healthy national funding landscape compared to some of our European counterparts,” added Flanagan.

The government’s grant schemes often focus on target areas including in health and the transition to net zero. These include the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, and the Net Zero Innovation Fund. Synthetic biology companies might be able to access these funds if they have applications in clean energy such as with bio-based hydrogen production.

The U.K.’s main agency for providing grants to small companies is Innovate UK. Previous government announcements have committed cash to swell Innovate UK’s budget to £1 billion ($1.1 billion). While there has been uncertainty over the U.K. government’s spending in recent weeks, it’s believed that this increase will go ahead as planned.

Innovate UK’s focus

Innovate UK has a number of focus areas that it aims to address in its grant funding mission.

“Nearly every competition that’s been launched at the moment makes some reference to net zero and becoming more sustainable,” said Flanagan. 

One example of this trend is the Farming Innovation Programme, which helps companies to provide farmers ways to improve their sustainability. The program is open to funding any sort of technology to speed up the process.

“Post Brexit, farmers’ subsidies are much more related to their environmental impact,” Flanagan commented. “It’s really critical now that they’re becoming much more sustainable in their approaches.”

Other areas of interest include health and wellbeing, bioengineering, bioinformatics and genomics.

shutterstock biotech uk startup

EU-UK biotech grant opportunities

One way U.K. biotech firms can find grants in collaboration with European partners is Eureka Eurostars. The program is directed by the EU, with Innovate UK taking care of U.K. participants. However, this scheme is often most helpful for advanced research projects that are close to the market.

In theory, U.K. companies can apply for EU funding via the Horizon Europe program. However, delays in international negotiations between lawmakers mean that there is still uncertainty regarding the status of U.K. partners in the initiative. The agency UK Research and Innovation has a scheme in place to guarantee the funding regardless of what happens with U.K. applications to Horizon Europe. 

“I’ve been saying this for about two years now and I had hoped it would have been finalized by now,” said Flanagan. “The hope is that the U.K. will become an associate member [in Horizon Europe], in which case we can apply and play a role as we did as a full EU member country.”

Conditions for getting biotech grants

As expected, the most vital tip for knowing the conditions for each grant scheme is to read the eligibility criteria carefully. In the case of U.K. schemes, the funded work should be carried out in the country, and should benefit the country. Often, grant schemes require match funding from other sources, such as private investments or company revenue.

Additionally, the money should be bankrolling expenses related to the research — such as lab equipment, the salaries of lab staff involved in the project, and traveling for meetings — and not everyday business expenses.

“Grant payments are typically made in arrears and they’re dependent on you completing quarterly technical and financial reports to the satisfaction of your monitoring officer,” said Flanagan. “It’s something to be aware of when you’re thinking about cash flow and planning your project.”

What to consider when applying for grants

When grant announcements are made, the organizers sometimes leave as little as six weeks to assemble an application, so pressure can be high. Flanagan advised planning at least two weeks for creating the application and allowing at least three months to get through the evaluation process.

Key points to clarify in grant applications include the market gap that you aim to address; the budget calculation; how the project will deliver big commercial success; the experience and skills of your project team; the competition; and your route to the market.

Emphasis should also be placed on your impact on customers, the economy and wider society. It also helps to think about how your benefits can reach all population groups and not inadvertently exclude anyone.

“If you are developing a product, process or service, how is that going to lead to increasing skills in the U.K. and job creation down the line?” said Flanagan.

For those outside of the U.K.’s Golden Triangle region that includes Oxford, Cambridge and London, there are also ways to pitch how your company can align with the Levelling Up agenda established by the government in the last few years. 

“There is a commitment now to spend 40% of the R&D budget outside the Southeast,” said Flanagan. “Traditionally that is a region that has attracted a lot of grant funding in the past, so they’re trying to distribute that more around the country.”

Alongside the specific advice provided by Flanagan, there was also a general push to reach out and find connections for your biotech startup via networks like WiSB. The more individuals that are aware of these support networks, the more diverse the sector will become in the coming years.

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