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Hunt for the Icure

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How to lead the pack chasing an Innovate UK grant

Innovate UK’s Icure programme is one of the UK’s leading multidisciplinary innovation schemes, helping researchers to acquire the skills and knowledge to move research insights and outputs towards commercialisation.

The programme is split into four main schemes: Engage, Discover, Explore and Exploit. The first three run open competitions, whereas researchers must be invited to participate in Exploit.

In March, a webinar by scheme organiser SetSquared focused on Explore, which has four competitions during the remainder of 2024. The next will open to applications on 3 June and close on 12 July.

Successful applicants will be admitted on a 12-week full-time programme with up to £35,000 in funding to help explore the commercial potential of their research outputs. They will also receive expert training during a five-day bootcamp.

How can applicants give themselves the best chance? At the webinar, Rosy Jones, head of Icure for SetSquared, and Sue Sundstrom, a consultant and assessor for the scheme, responded to that question in detail. Here are three key points.

1. Know what Explore is—and isn’t

Explore is focused on market validation—in Jones’s words, “finding out where the market is for a research output” rather than making the first commercial moves in identified markets.

As Jones and Sundstrom made clear, Icure is not a generalised spinout scheme. In fact, the outcome of a successful Explore project may not be a move towards spinning out a company at all—it may point towards a licensing deal or a return to the lab to refine the technology.

Going over some good and bad answers to one application question—“Why are you applying to Icure Explore?”—Sundstrom had sharp criticism for one response. This applicant had written: “The programme offers a vital financial stepping stone for early career researchers to pursue a spinout venture.”

As an assessor, Sundstrom said she sensed that the applicant’s thinking behind this answer ran along these lines: “I want to do a spinout but I need some more money to pay my salary…I know that spinouts are what Icure does so I’ll put that in.”

She continued: “It’s very easy to assess. You would get a low grading.”

2. Choose your team wisely

Unlike Engage and Discover, Explore is not purely for individuals; it requires a team consisting of an entrepreneurial lead, a tech transfer officer, a principal scientific adviser and a business adviser.

While only the entrepreneurial lead has to commit to working on Explore full time, the other team members have to be engaged and must all complete the five-day bootcamp, so a serious commitment is required.

While judicious selection of all team members is important, selecting the right entrepreneurial lead is essential, Jones said, not least because, if the project progresses to Exploit (and then to Icure follow-on funding), the same lead must be at the helm.

An Explore grant “is not something that someone can spend 12 weeks on and then either just go back to research or have someone else take over [for the next steps]”, Jones stressed.

Sundstrom also mentioned the importance of having a committed entrepreneurial lead on a bid: “It’s the entrepreneurial lead who will take the project forward—and for them it needs to be personal. They should be passionate about taking [the idea] through to the market. Yes, the science needs to be objective and factual, but I like to see a bit of passion come through as to why people are trying to do it.”

3. Clarity is crucial

When Sundstrom discussed example answers to a handful of the questions that appear on the application, it became apparent that two characteristics are very highly valued by assessors: clarity and openness.

This was particularly true regarding intellectual property. She stressed that Explore could only support projects where any IP was owned wholly or in part by UK universities or public sector research establishments, not by individuals.

Yet assessors understand that there can still be complexity within those parameters. Jones said: “Almost always there is [an unanswered] question about the IP on applications. If you’ve got a partnership with a commercial organisation, just say so, or that you’re investigating it. If you’ve got a joint piece of IP with a different institution, just state it.”

Similarly, a question on the technology readiness level of the project should be answered with clarity and honesty. The Explore scheme is for outputs that are “roughly at technology readiness level 4”, meaning they have been validated in the lab, Jones and Sundstrom said. But here again, assessors are aware that this does not mean quite the same thing across different domains.


Sundstrom recommended the use of bullet points, even though they “aren’t used a lot in research grant applications”, to make it easier reading for assessors. She also stressed the importance of considering who the people reading the bid would be: “Assume assessors are well educated but probably not up to date in your scientific discipline.” 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com