By Daniel Hunter

The Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) is hailed a success as it passes a milestone of £100 million of contracts awarded to small businesses from public sector departments. This coincides with the UK Government stating its intention to expand the SBRI, which is facilitated by the Technology Strategy Board, five-fold.

Established in 2009, the SBRI gives SMEs an opportunity to connect with public sector procurement by inviting them to present innovative solutions to specific problems in a competition format.

The ideas presented can result in 100% funded government development contracts with the public sector body running the competition. Since inception, the scheme has run 124 full competitions, resulting in 1270 contracts awarded to SMEs at a total value of £104.8 million.

In the March budget, the UK Government pledged to expand the SBRI by taking the value of contracts offered through the scheme from £40 million in 2012-13 to over £100 million in 2013-14 and over £200 million in 2014-15.

The range of public sector bodies and SMEs participating in the SBRI is potentially limitless, with previous successes including mobile security technology for the Home Office, military technology for the Centre for Defence Enterprise, and assistive learning software for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

“The beauty of the SBRI is that it presents a truly win-win scenario whereby government departments can find solutions to very real problems, whilst small businesses have an opportunity to present their ideas to organisations that may otherwise be unreachable," Stephen Browning, Head of SBRI at the Technology Strategy Board.

"The challenges are expressed as outcome based needs rather than narrow product specification to give greater scope for innovation.”

The NHS in the East of England benefited from the scheme when it called for solutions for managing long term conditions. Young medical technology company Eykona answered with an innovation in 3D wound imaging for assessing hard-to-heal wounds such as diabetic and pressure ulcers. Eykona’s technology replaces traditional methods of wound assessment, which still involve rulers, tracing paper, and ordinary cameras.

The SBRI contract played a crucial role in connecting Eykona with the NHS and securing funding to commercialise the technology, and today Eykona is a listed NHS supplier helping to address the wound care problem that costs the NHS an estimated £3bn per annum. Indeed, in March 2013 it was listed as one of only 108 innovations in the NHS Health and Wealth Catalogue of Potential Innovations, and the same device has also been used in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, to assess the wounds of injured soldiers.

Competitions can generate multiple successes, as demonstrated in the second NHS East of England ‘Long term conditions’ competition where five phase two SBRI contracts were issued. These projects are all progressing well; for example, Polyphotonix is developing a therapy to halt progressive blindness that can affect diabetics and older adults, whilst Edixomed is working on a wound dressing that generates nitric oxide to restore the body’s natural defence.

“Clinicians working together with entrepreneurs and technology specialists gives us an exciting mix that leads to real innovation," Karen Livingstone, Director of Strategic Partnerships, NHS East of England, commented.

"Through the SBRI healthcare programme we have found several exciting new technology products that are helping us to tackle chronic wounds, improve testing and support for those with specialist conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Parkinson's Disease, and improve monitoring for patients in high dependency units.

“The companies involved have also attracted additional private investment of more than £10m on the back of their SBRI contracts, making the NHS pound go even further. The NHS has many challenges to tackle and, through the SBRI healthcare programme, we are building long-term partnerships with industry to create new products that will save lives and deliver economic value to the UK economy.”

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