How data can accelerate procurement of innovation

An ambulance typically takes two hours to be completely sanitised after transporting a patient suspected of having COVID-19. This adds strain and delay on an already busy and pressurised service.

In the first wave of the pandemic last year in March, the Welsh Government approached the Defence and Security Accelerator, Innovate UK and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down for help in finding innovative solutions to speed up cleaning.

A Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) call was issued, and received over 200 responses within seven days. This was whittled down to 12 suppliers which, six weeks later, underwent physical trials. The winning supplier, Hygiene Pro Clean, not only reduced the cleaning time to just 30 minutes, but enabled crew to undertake other duties while the ambulance is being cleaned, and was adopted across the Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

What is a SBRI?

SBRI is a way for public sector organisations to find and validate innovative solutions to their challenges. It use pre-commercial procurement of research and development to support the creation of new products and solutions to address unmet needs. It provides small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) a route to work with challenge owners in the public sector and the awarded contracts can cover up to 100% of project costs, while allowing the innovative supplier to retain ownership of all intellectual property.

“Emergencies can provide an opportunity to try out new approaches to innovative procurement, as they represent the emergence of new requirements that must be addressed urgently and the consequences of failure are obvious. We also saw the COVID pandemic stimulate other new approaches, such as the ventilator challenge,” explains Malcolm Harbour, an associate at Connected Places Catapult and former Member of the European Parliament who has chaired task forces and committees on innovation procurement.

“It’s an absolute order of magnitude improvement for Welsh Ambulance,” he adds. “It’s been achieved by thinking through the problems that need to be solved, going out to research, develop and deploy solutions by using relatively little public investment. There are big collateral benefits as well. Solutions to one problem can be widely deployed to solve others. Wales is already moving to disinfect schools. Long term jobs are created with the innovative supplier.”

Public procurement is worth £270 billion a year in goods, works and services in the UK, and can be a major stimulus to private sector innovation. But while there are good examples and case studies of innovation procurement like Welsh Ambulance’s experience, adopting these leading practices is far from routine. Decision makers are hesitant to try new ways of working without good examples to follow. The case for change would be greatly enhanced by accessible and detailed best practice case studies on the process and all its outcomes.

“We need far more comprehensive best practice data which will help decision makers translate learning into effective programmes,” says Harbour. “We have very little quality data to benchmark the key process milestones, the potential outcomes and the wide- ranging impact of innovation procurement.”

Many government leaders are acutely aware that decisions on new technology can quickly backfire if they fail. But the COVID crisis helped influence the internal cultures of public sector departments in becoming less risk averse when it comes to innovation.

Harbour argues that, with many local authorities and other tiers of the public sector declaring a climate emergency and looking to become net-zero, the timing is ripe for this internal culture to shift further towards new approaches for innovation procurement.

“People are thinking imaginatively about net-zero, and some are now putting calls out to the marketplace and encouraging inventors to supply them,” says Harbour.

Equally, while procurement challenges up until now have funded early innovation, scaling up the capabilities of a small company to deliver and meet legislative requirements remains a challenge.

“Currently, supporting innovators to develop a minimum viable product can be funded under so called “pre-commercial procurement” rules, such as the well known SBRI mechanism,” says Harbour. “But for an innovative company with a developed product or  service, making the transition to become a fully fledged supplier needs investment and expertise. Too many great ideas can fail to jump this gap.”

Within the devolved administration of Scotland, the government’s CivTech “Innovation Flow” programme addresses the “scaling up” challenges.

“In Scotland, they are working with venture capital providers, angel investors, and business mentors to provide support for this scale-up phase, where most innovators will need to attract new competences and funding,” explains Harbour. “And this is something that you also see happening across Europe as well.”

A number of European countries have set up their own Innovation Procurement competence centres, and they share best practice through their Procure2Innovate network. Their aim is to encourage wider use of leading innovation procurement support, including both pre-commercial procurement (PCP) and public procurement of innovation (PPI). They provide practical and financial assistance to public procurers in the preparation and implementation of PCP and PPI across all sectors of public interest.

In the UK, Harbour brought together Connected Places Catapult, the University of Birmingham, and the University of Manchester to launch the Consortium for Research in Innovative and Strategic Public Procurement (CRISPP) in May this year. This consortium is looking to analyse data that already exists, develop new data collection templates and enhanced best practice guidance for public sector bodies seeking new ways of delivering public services. It will also assess the impact of different approaches to innovation procurement, looking across the world for best practice solutions. 

Harbour reveals that the consortium is now focussing on gathering and finding its own means of collecting data.

“More decision makers will reach out for innovation procurement if they have credible data to support their case and to design the procedures that would be optimal for their particular sector,” adds Harbour. “This new consortium will help the UK, already the top ranked large economy in an EU ranking study on innovation procurement, to continue to be a leader.”

Here to help you connect with the UK innovation ecosystem

Connected Places Catapult is working to help organisations like yours to identify and introduce innovations through the adoption of a more imaginative approach to procurement. Read more stories on our Challenging Procurement Hub or contact us at challengingprocurement@cp.catapult.org.uk to discuss what we could do for you

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