I joined the Transforming Food Production (TFP) team just over a year ago, after spending five enjoyable years with the KTN Agri-food team. I helped many individual companies on their funding journey, but, while I regularly witnessed SMEs winning the funding ‘battle’ by securing a collaborative R&D project, they only had a chance of winning the funding ‘war’ once they secured private investment.
My mindset became that, for a sector like Agri-food, transformative ideas from talented SMEs will only become real when they willingly jump on the investment merry-go-round.
More than just introductions
One of my areas of focus at KTN was delivery of the Agri-food Investment showcase, with additional support from Innovate UK. The Showcase event acted as a mixing bowl for introductions between entrepreneurs and investors, and sparking discussion on business success through new partnerships.
It was a great success too, with over half of all UK Agri-food deals including SMEs involved in the Showcase – but, like many innovation enthusiasts, I wanted more! I was keen to move beyond just helping discussions, but to take the next step of cementing these relationships through funding support. So, joining TFP to develop a funding intervention to do exactly this was an opportunity not to be missed.
While UKRI funds projects and investors fund companies, the key to a successful partnership is to align the two. In the case of the Agri-food sector, we knew late-stage project applications were undersubscribed - probably due to lower funding rates – despite being key to making innovation ready for commercialisation.
The investor is often looking at the same SMEs if they show this desire to scale and grow, thus driving the SME’s first significant lump of private cash. We call these Series A deals and the UK Agri-food sector is 45% lower at securing them when compared globally.
Our aim is to improve this statistic. In a nutshell, sole SMEs apply to TFP to fund their project idea, while simultaneously looking for private investment at least twice the level of the TFP grant. Only when the investment is aligned can the grant be secured, so the TFP Series A Investor Partnership Programme was born.
For this to work, it was important to bring on board a group of lead investors willing to participate. As investors don’t tend to monitor the Innovate UK grant competitions, to drive applications it was time to pick up previous relationships to explain the new approach.
I had hoped to meet them in person, but lockdown put an end to that - so it was back to the phones, email and video calls. Fortunately for me, Daniel Carew from IQ Capital was one of my first. Not only did he wholeheartedly buy into the approach, he provided some valuable insight into the investment side and how to maximise potential engagement.
While the TFP challenge is not looking for equity in the SME, we do act like an impact investor, using project monitoring and support to ensure their project will be transformational to the sector – and thereby achieving the aims of the challenge.
It is, of course, up to the investment community to support the SME through funding the business elements that TFP cannot reach, and this clarification enabled us to encourage 15 applications from global Investors. Of these, 11 investors were selected by our appointed panel as we look to provide opportunities for SMEs across the diverse landscape of business and innovation in the Agri-food sector.
Now we had our pool of investors, we needed exciting and ambitious project applications from the SME community - and we were not disappointed! But were these great ideas ready for investment? In many cases probably not. So to support this, the top 31 applications deemed eligible for grant support were invited to an Investor Readiness Bootcamp (yes that is a thing).
Here, through over 22 hours of virtual content, with seven external trainers, five Investor sessions and ongoing support from KTN, the SMEs were helped to understand and pitch their investment, learn what an investor is looking for, what a deal should look like, and detailed information on finances, due diligence, IP and much more.
Our cohort of companies are now ready to battle to secure their aligned investment, and we wish them all the luck in the world.
So where do we go from here? As we watch the deals being discussed and wait for terms to be agreed, we hope to announce the winners in June. Sharing this journey with other ISCF colleagues, the message of aligned investment strikes at the heart of what many want to achieve to support innovation growth in the UK - and that this type of funding mechanism is genuinely the future of late-stage challenge-driven funding. Hopefully, we’ll see success which means we can expand even further next time around.
You can go to the Innovate UK website
You can go to the Innovate EDGE website
You can go to the UKRI website