Innovate UK drives economic growth by supporting businesses to develop new ideas. It does so by connecting businesses to those that can help them and by providing funding. Since 2007 it has funded around 11,000 projects which, with industry matched funding, have a value of over £4.3 billion. This is estimated to have created 70,000 jobs and generated £18 billion in added value to the economy.
One way of providing this funding is through open competitions of which the latest is a £7.4 million competition to encourage innovation in construction of the Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE). This is being funded by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
This competition was launched at an event in Cardiff on 3 October at which companies were invited to hear how they could enter. Speaking at this event, Mike Noakes, BEIS’s head of rail explained that his department was funding this railway competition as constructing GCRE addressed the BEIS priorities associated with innovation, upskilling, net zero, levelling up, and stimulating economic regeneration.
He also explained that BEIS sought to provide the supply chain with what it needs to do its job. He feels that the high-quality railway supply chain has the potential to be enormously innovative. Yet it is constrained by insufficient UK testing facilities. As a result, suppliers must go to the Czech Republic or take chunks of the network out of commission to test their products.
GCRE will provide the required facilities and will also promote innovation. Hence it makes sense to build in innovation as it is being built. Mike considers that the ideas from this competition should be relevant to railways around the world and thus this was the beginning of an export opportunity. He also feels companies will be attracted to GCRE when its testing and research facilities are provided. He noted that this had happened at the automotive technology hub of Silverstone Park which now generates millions of pounds of revenue.
Kelvin Davies is Innovate UK’s lead technologist for rail and is currently seconded to GCRE. He noted that, to date, Innovate UK’s rail-related competitions had been funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) with the aim of improving the railway and that this competition is funded by BEIS as its focus is growing the economy.
Explaining the competition
The competition is intended to help make industry more competitive and to reduce capital costs for railway construction at GCRE, and globally. Hence, entrants must demonstrate, for example, how their innovations will reduce whole life costs, reduce timescales, or result in more efficient materials handling or efficient use of resources.
It has two phases. The first is the production of a feasibility study with plans to demonstrate innovation in railway construction whilst working with the teams building GCRE. Entrants who produce a successful feasibility study will then be invited to a phase 2 competition for a much larger grant to deliver and demonstrate their innovation at the GCRE site.
Kelvin considers that the real prize is an innovation that works on the whole railway. He feels that the prize was not just a funding opportunity but an invaluable opportunity for a company to showcase its product at what will become a new railway technology hub.
Entrants will have to ensure that their innovation addresses one of the following themes: trackwork; OLE; earthworks and structures; power supply infrastructure; telecommunications; perimeter and cyber security; monitoring and maintenance; railway operation and automated systems; or ecology and habitat creation. Kelvin advises that a portfolio approach will be taken when choosing successful applicants, so the aim is to fund at least one project in each of the nine themes.
Phases 1 and 2
Competition entrants will first be bidding for the opportunity to take part in phase 1. This is a series of three-month feasibility studies with a maximum cost of £40,000 that start in May 2023, and for which funding of £575,000 has been allocated. This is for 23 studies each funded by £25,000. As a percentage of total cost, the grant given is between 50% for large organisations and 70% for small organisations.
The feasibility study is a stepping stone to phase 2. Hence, it must describe how proposed innovations are to be delivered at the GCRE. This must include details of the working relationships with the lead construction teams which BEIS and GCRE will introduce to the competition entrants.
Phase 2 projects will start around early 2024, depending on the construction activity concerned. These will be delivered by the teams invited to enter the phase 2 competition because of their successful feasibility studies. Funding of £6.8 million has been allocated for phase 2. This is for a nominal 12 projects each with a grant of £575,000 with matched funding up to £0.8 million to £1 million per project. The exact number of projects funded depends on the grants awarded to the phase 2 winners. Hence Kelvin pleaded entrants not to bid for higher level funding than necessary.
The phase 2 projects must have a demonstration event, for which teams must obtain the required permissions and approvals, as well as an evaluation activity to assess the innovation’s commercial impact on the railway network. It is also a competition condition that the technology concerned must be left on site as part of an extended test and demonstration exercise.
The competition closed on 14 December and applicants will be informed whether they have been successful on 27 January.
Rail Engineer looks forward to featuring the successful applicants.