What I learned writing successful bids for grants

Horizon 2020 and Innovate UK logos

Grants are very valuable for SMEs and small business. You can get the needed cash inflow to push your project or product further. You won’t have to pay back or give out part of your equity, even if the project is not successful or even achievable. The biggest challenge: they are highly competitive and making your message stand out is paramount.

Having successfully obtained grants for SMEs on the Horizon 2020 (SME Instrument) and SMART Awards (Innovate UK), I list below some tested lessons to increase your chances on these processes.

  1. Answer the question

Risking to sound too obvious, but well, you must answer the question. If the question is ‘what is innovative about your project?’ don’t talk about your competitors or market. Remember you have a very limited word counting. Instead, focus on what is the core aspect of your project that make it innovative and worth exploring. Make sure to have this point clearly written there, so everybody (even non-specialists in you market) can understand.

  1. Aim high

Your project must have an innovative aspect on it – particularly to these two mentioned grants. Leaving naiveness aside, I don’t think your project is about a breaking-through breath-taking technology. If it was, you would be at NASA, not on business. But luckily, neither EU fund or Innovate UK think you need to reach that level of innovation.

Still, your project must provide an edge. I often question new clients’ projects:

  • Is the market underserved and worth exploring?
  • Is there any aspect that can be patented or culminate into new IP?
  • Are you tackling an existing problem in a new format?
  • Can outcomes be explored in other markets, other customers, other countries?
  • How will the market look like after this project is implemented?

If you can’t see the impact of the project on large scale, neither will the assessors and your chances will be low.

  1. … But be savvy on risk mitigation

Where there is uncertainty, there is risk – and this is ok. Risk is an essential part of your grant application. Even more, it is how you mitigate foreseen risks that matters. Think about your team and subcontractors that can bring experience and expertise to your case.

  1. Right timing 

The technology readiness level is a key concept here. Technologies and business ideas need time to test, develop and get ready to enter the market. Grants are designed to bridge gaps from (high risky, unpredictable) early research to (low risk, predictable) commercial ideas.

They will fund only project within this gap. Horizon 2020 SME Instrument focus on projects that reached TRL 6. Innovate UK focus on TRL 3 to 7 (spread within their extensive programmes). Review the TRL concept and make sure your project fit the criteria.

  1. Numbers are important

Paraphrasing my lecturers at the MSc in Entrepreneurship, don’t be silly when it comes to numbers on your plan. Here is a classic example: I have an app to make people more productive. It runs on smartphones. EVERYBODY owns a phone. EVERYBODY wants to be more productive. Therefore, my target market is the WORLD!

Getting the exact size of your customers is daunting, and (I argue) even unnecessary on some cases. The objective on the application is to showcase your thinking process and professional approach to reach your customers. Getting to the ‘close enough’ size within the time you have is much better than play on extremes. It also helps with the risk mitigation we talked about.

  1. Make the reader buy into your project

What is the reader’s agenda? Increase the competiveness of the UK? Find innovative ideas to solve EU / global issues? Find a new company to their portfolio?

Make sure you know what they are looking to see on your application; and, simply enough, write it there.

  1. Get support and feedback early

How many times have you heard the sentence: ‘I don’t have any competitors’? On my experience, entrepreneurs tend to share a lot of their business, trying to sell every single aspect of it. They tend to focus on the inside view, underestimating what they don’t know or the outside view. Grants are not only about you, or your project. The application must reflect what the fund provider is looking for.

You can find either support to write the grant (as people like me) or the external revision by Innovate UK and KTN teams once it is written; but getting an external perspective is essential.

In my experience, writing grants or pitches and business plan are very similar. It is about crafting the right message to your audience, building on your strengths and mitigating risks. It is also about being honest about your flaws and gaps. Investors – no matter if private or government bodies – are people who perceive and react to risks. Showing that you are fully aware about yourself, your team and your business (both positive and negative aspects) is your best first impression.

Feel free to get in touch with any comment or enquiry about grant writing. I’d love to help you get your business out there. I’m passionate about working with SMEs and small business that want to make change and realise new ideas. More insights and info here.

About the author: nprieto