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SBRI: A new way to win public sector business

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NESTA is calling for the UK’s Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to be scaled up, allowing wider access to funding and growth for SMEs. 

In case you aren’t familiar with the SBRI, it’s a programme to help SMEs win public sector contracts. Specifically, the programme encourages the public sector to award contracts to SMEs that have developed innovative pre-commercial technologies.

The scheme certainly has the potential to drive entrepreneurial growth. In the US, where the model was first created, SBRI-funded companies generated five times more growth than other companies over a ten-year period.

With public sector spend on products and services topping £220bn every year in the UK, even just a slice of the pie would drive SME growth.

“SBRI shows that when small businesses are offered the chance to solve real public challenges, they’re able to accelerate both their own technology development while bringing about wider benefits to the economy and society. It’s a win-win situation,” says Sir John Chisholm, NESTA’s chairman.

The SBRI programme was first created in 2001, but received low public sector buy-in. A revised version of the SBRI, managed by the Technology Strategy Board, was relaunched in April 2009, and has since awarded 425 contracts to small businesses to the value of £27m. NESTA has now been brought on board to assess and help scale-up the programme.

NESTA’s review concluded that the SBRI scheme must be scaled up in order to optimise its impact on public bodies and for it to reach “a far greater number of promising companies”.

Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, says that NESTA’s positive review of the SBRI is a “great acknowledgement” of the successful SBRI relaunch. “SBRI has been a priority for us since it was set up last year, and we’re delighted that we’ve breathed life into a project that is set to produce great opportunities for SMEs in the UK in coming years.”

SBRI was piloted by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in 2008, when it launched a competition to find ways of eradicating hospital superbugs. On average, MRSA treatment costs £9,000 per patient, costing the NHS billions of pounds a year.

The pilot was a success: nine of the ten competition entrants had never worked with the NHS before, and it allows the NIHR to access, for the first time, companies in the food industry that had solved the problem previously in a different context. It also gave the NIHR more immediate results compared to previous procurement exercises, which had taken up to seven years.

Find out more information on the Small Business Research Initiative.

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