The Cancer Innovation Challenge – the funding challenge

Key lessons in how to structure a high-risk project that keeps funders happy and give you flexibility in managing innovation programmes.

In 2016 I led the development of the funding proposal for the Cancer Innovation Challenge, a £1M fund to deliver better outcomes to cancer patients in Scotland. Comparatively, cancer patients in Scotland have below average clinical outcomes – despite Scotland having some of the world’s best cancer data and some of the world’s best data scientists. So the Cancer Innovation Challenge was set up to drive innovation in this area.

Key lessons from the Cancer Challenge bid:

  1. £1M is a lot of money. But it’s not enough to change the system – so manage expectations and cut your cloth accordingly.
  2. It is difficult to promise innovation if there is no agreement on where you should be innovating.
  3. If risk is a bigger concern than delivery, then you need to structure your programme around a risk management framework and then manage risk first – don’t be afraid to use stage-gates to manage progress and to give you options to change your approach.
  4. At every stage you need an exit strategy – particularly if you’re not able to drive innovation or the innovation isn’t there.
  5. Don’t build a new network – use and build on existing ones. It’s much quicker. And it’s much easier.
  6. You get what you pay for – and if you’re not paying organisations to work with you then you are reliant on relationships and goodwill. Contracts are easier to manage than goodwill is.

Delivery model

We wanted to maximise the innovation potential of the Cancer Challenge, so we set a broad strategic framework and then ran a pair of SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) funding calls to kickstart our three stage delivery model:

  1. Tendering
  2. Do feasibility studies with clinicians, patients and the NHS
  3. Build proof of concepts, and deploy them if possible

Any company from the EU was allowed to apply, and the Challenge’s Strategic Management Board reviewed proposals and allocated funding.

Managing risks – using a stage-gate Approach

The strength of the Cancer Challenge approach was it’s openness and flexibility. Conversely, funders found that risky. So I implemented a stage-gate approach, which gave us exit points at every stage of the process – and at every stage of the delivery model.

  1. If we didn’t get relevant enough or ambitious enough applications, we could re-tender, run a different SBRI call, change our area of focus – or decide not to invest in an area.
  2. If the feasibility studies weren’t successful – or raised concerns that were unlikely to be overcome – the stage-gate gave us an opportunity to stop investing in projects that were unlikely to succeed.
  3. A key concern when working with data in the health sector is getting information governance approval. By making this a requirement of the feasibility study, we were able to manage risk and minimise exposure to projects that wouldn’t be deployable

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