UKRI’s Healthy Ageing Challenge has a radical new way of getting funding to innovative researchers

UKRI is partnering with Zinc on its Healthy Ageing Challenge, aiming to allow researchers to think boldly and flexibly as they find new ways to apply their work. Tim Shakespeare explains.

Tim Shakespeare is research and innovation design manager at Zinc. 

As our population ages there is a significant need for innovation to add high quality years to later life. A wide range of issues come into focus in later life, from addressing common health conditions to resolving financial concerns, but many of these needs are currently unmet.

The UKRI Healthy Ageing Challenge seeks to bring new energy to the creation of products and services that help people as they age. Traditional grant processes can encourage safe bets rather than projects that could be truly transformative if successful.

Recognising this, UKRI is experimenting with a different way of delivering funding in one part of this challenge and partnering with Zinc, a mission-led company at the intersection of startup business and social science research, to deliver a new application process and programme of support for the Healthy Ageing Catalyst Awards.

A catalyst for change

Scientific research is set up to create new knowledge and answer important questions, but finding the best ways to apply this knowledge to tackle the problems of today is an ongoing challenge. Pathways to translate research findings into practical solutions are relatively well established in medicine, technology and engineering, but less so in arts, humanities and social sciences. Insights from these disciplines have huge potential to improve our lives, so we are now seeing concerted efforts to address this gap. One example is the launch of Aspect in 2018, a network for organisations to bring social sciences research to bear on the biggest societal challenges of our time by supporting commercial and business opportunities.

Similarly, funding bodies are looking for new ways to encourage and support researchers from all disciplines to apply their insights to tackle pressing challenges for society. We think that a combination of three changes has the potential to make a big difference: changing application processes to encourage ideas with huge potential, encouraging flexible and adaptable project plans, and providing support to work with a more entrepreneurial mindset. We’re excited to be partnering with UKRI on the Healthy Ageing Catalyst Awards, where we’ll be making these changes and looking to find out just how much difference we can make.

Fresh perspectives on the applications process

In the majority of grant applications, researchers are required to undertake a substantial amount of work up front. They are asked to provide a detailed project plan and describe the outputs that will be achieved. How these outputs can be translated into real-world benefits is often an afterthought. Feedback on the plan usually isn’t available until after the application is submitted, meaning that researchers have to make an educated guess at what the reviewers will want to see. This approach can mean researchers are more cautious in their applications, and submit ideas that they feel are more likely to be reviewed positively, rather than the ideas they are most excited and passionate about.

In the Catalyst Awards, we want to encourage researchers to take a different approach. We want them to have a deep understanding of the problems they want to solve, and the people they will solve it for, but flexibility in how they will solve these problems. This flexibility is incredibly important in order to find out what works, and what sticks, in the messy real world.

We have designed a collaborative application process so that we can work together with researchers to shape their proposals, helping them define the problems and understand the needs of users. The process involves a number of stages.

Initial workshops, taking place in January 2021, aim to inspire researchers with examples of different ways research has successfully been applied to benefit large numbers of people. These workshops will encourage researchers to think about how to define the problem, how to understand what users need, and how this different way of approaching a project can help to deliver a solution that is desirable, effective, and will continue to grow.

In order to reduce hours spent crafting an application in a silo the initial form will be relatively short. Shortlisted applicants will go through further workshops and interviews between March and May to shape their plans with support that encourages ambition and values the approach that people take, more than having certainty of particular outputs. We hope that this will be a valuable experience whether applicants go on to receive the award or not.

Casting the net

Getting the best ideas isn’t just about how we design the application process, it’s also about who applies. UKRI and Zinc are keen to reach new researchers and bring new perspectives to the healthy ageing challenge. This means appealing not only to researchers in the field of healthy ageing, but also in other fields that could bring knowledge to bear on this problem.

So we’ll be reaching out to researchers in fields such as assistive technology, financial services and neglected health conditions, aiming to show new research audiences the importance of later life innovation. We are particularly keen to reach individuals early in their research career as these awards provide the opportunity for a unique experience and strong foundations to apply their research for years to come.

Supporting the journey

We and UKRI recognise that we are asking researchers to take on a programme of work that will be quite different from a standard research project. We want to bring the best ways of working from innovative startups that have tried and tested methods for building solutions that are effective, that people want to use and that are set up to have huge potential for growth.

Zinc has experience in supporting people from diverse backgrounds to work in this way on our venture builder programmes, the most recent of which focused on later life. We’re excited to bring this expertise, and the community of people involved in Zinc’s work, to support researchers to make their ideas a reality.

An important part of this is helping researchers use an entrepreneurial mindset to find the most effective way they can apply their research beyond university walls. That means finding a route that will allow the solution to grow and reach more and more people. This could be a spin-out business but equally could be a charity, social movement or policy activity. The best route will depend on their interests and ideas, and the problem they’re trying to solve.

Finding that solution may well involve trial and error, testing a solution to see if it works and rapidly improving it or taking a different approach based on early results. We hope using these principles and learning from startups will help researchers avoid long development times and enable them to create products or services that can be effectively scaled to reach a wide audience.

A focus on action

This is an exciting new approach designed to support researchers who want to apply their work to make a difference in the here and now. In a way it is an experiment itself, testing whether bringing the worlds of research and startup innovation together can create new and exciting products and services, based on rigorous research but with a focus on action.

Anyone interested in applying for this award or sharing this opportunity with researchers can find out more on the Catalyst Awards website, or by contacting the Zinc team. The process starts with workshops in January and final decisions will be made in June before successful applicants start in September 2021.

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