It’s astonishing the difference nine months can make in business. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic may well leave its mark on UK industry and innovation in a way no other crisis has before and will continue to do so for many years to come.
From dealing with lockdown conditions in March, to establishing safer ways of working now, different UK industries are adapting and innovating to build a completely new working world.
In response to this unprecedented environment, the Government and UKRI’s flagship business-led Challenge Fund is supporting industries and businesses in a number of ways.
It’s helping sectors and regions that are some of the hardest hit by the economic effects of COVID-19 as well as supporting projects where the pandemic is a catalyst for innovation, enabling businesses to adapt to the new environment.
Supporting businesses in need
The Challenge Fund was already investing in some of the sectors hardest hit by the economic effects of COVID-19, such as the creative, automotive and aviation industries – most notably: the Audience of the Future challenge; Future of Flight Challenge; Faraday Battery Challenge; and Driving the Electric Revolution Challenge.
An example of this is next-generation battery technology company, OXIS Energy. It has developed lithium-sulphur (Li-S) battery technology that will revolutionise the rechargeable battery market and meet the performance needs of larger vehicles. In 2010, OXIS received a grant of £234,000 through Innovate UK and has since secured a £2.7 million grant from the Faraday Battery Challenge and UKRI to develop a standard Li-S battery module.
It is now establishing its first-ever manufacturing plant in Port Talbot, Wales for the production of electrolyte and cathode active material, ready for the mass production of Li-S cells. OXIS is also establishing a Brazilian plant with NORDIKA Pharmaceutical of Brazil providing design engineering, and is collaborating with several other companies and partners, such as Siemens AG and NASA. For every 1000 diesel buses in the transportation systems that Li-S batteries replace, the innovation is expected to save 500 barrels of oil a day.
Meanwhile, two of the UK’s most iconic museums are using UKRI funding to reach new audiences at home via Augmented Reality whilst their normal business is disrupted by social distancing and the anxieties audiences have about visiting venues.
Covid19 has meant the Audience of the Future Visitor Experience demonstrator delaying its ground-breaking mixed reality trial until next spring.
In the meantime, the Science Museum, Natural History Museum along with its partners Factory 42, Sky and Almeida Theatre have pivoted to digital by launching My Dino Mission AR and My Robot Mission AR, mobile apps that use cutting edge AR technology to engage kids with scientific thinking and STEM challenges at home; identify and caring for different dinosaur species; and creating their own robots for different terrains and challenges.
Investing in regions
The Challenge Fund is investing far-and-wide across the UK in places such as Scotland, Teesside, the North West, Wales and the Humber. Some of these regions are most at risk from the effects of a recession and £18million has been invested in the Tees Valley, £41.5 million in West Wales, and £27 million in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Planned activity in these regions includes the development of regional plans for new clean energy infrastructure, including carbon capture and hydrogen production, through the Cluster Plans competition of the Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge.
The pandemic has also been a catalyst for innovation and UKRI is supporting projects that are creating future ways of working, as well as new jobs. It has provided over 800 companies with £40 million in funding to develop new projects and services to address the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.
One of our most notable projects – the Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC) began in 2018 with funding of £65 million from ISCF’s Medicines Manufacturing Challenge. Given the pandemic, a further funding injection of £131 million has accelerated the building of the final facility at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire,12 months earlier than its original launch date and created a rapid response ‘virtual’ VMIC.
It will be able to produce enough pandemic vaccine doses for the whole UK population in four to six months, ensuring the momentum will continue all the way from lab to patient.
Investment has also supported companies such as Figment Productions that is working on alternatives to touch screens in public places, as well as Toshiba Europe that is developing a fleet of logistic robots capable of autonomously coordinating delivery of vital supplies in ad-hoc arenas, such as the Nightingale hospitals.
In the coming months and years, we know we need to see more businesses and industries find innovative ways to adapt to the new environment that COVID-19 presents. A difficult journey is always easier when you have someone else alongside you – we look forward to sharing that journey with innovative businesses so that we can all push the UK’s R&D roadmap forward to grow the UK economy.
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You can go to the Innovate UK website