6 lessons for innovation projects from the Cancer Innovation 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 £1M Cancer Innovation Challenge. 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. Here are the key lessons we learned about setting up and delivering innovation projects through the Challenge.

Key lessons from the Cancer Innovation Challenge:

  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. You need an exit strategy if you’re not getting the results you want – particularly if you’re not able to drive innovation or the innovation isn’t there. If you can’t exit or pivot then it’s not really much of a stage gate.
  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.

1. Understand what’s deliverable

£1M is a lot of money. And it’s not a lot of money either – particularly if you’re looking for significant innovation. Understanding that contradiction is key to managing stakeholders and funders. You won’t change the world with £1M – but you can make some significant gains in some areas. The more focused you are, the more likely your project is to have real world impact.

A proof of concept won’t change the world. But the right proof of concept that helps the right people and which can be turned into a commercial product can make a difference to tens of thousands of people.

2. Understand what your innovation project is trying to deliver

It’s difficult to promise that you’ll deliver innovation. You can do the right things, have the right ideas, identify the right opportunities, fund the right projects… but you can’t guarantee impact.

In reality, a lot of what we see branded as ‘innovation’ is actually just continuous improvement. A relentless focus on marginal gains produces change, though some would say that’s not particularly innovative. So you need to understand how much change is a reasonable expectation, given the size of your investment.

So when you start to put together a funding call for an innovation project it’s important to focus on the outcome(s) you’re trying to support. The clearer the outcomes, the more likely you are to succeed – you’re more likely to get relevant, fundable submissions.

And you then need to think about how you will leverage the change you’ve funded to have a wider impact – how can you continue the development of the projects you’ve funded?

3. Manage systematic risks to innovation

Many innovation projects face what I would call structural risks. These include ‘solutions’ which you know in advance are likely lead to dead ends. There may be approaches that are unlikely to work given time/budget/staff constraints. Applicants may not take information access and/or legal issues seriously. They may need access to information/data/resources that they’re unlikely to get. They may rely on an external organisation’s support/processes, and so on. It’s important to highlight these risks in advance so everyone is aware of them.

Managing risk by design – through careful structuring of your program – provides you with tools to systematically address risk in innovation projects.

4. Build in flexibility – or risk being locked into an innovation project that’s not innovating

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 four stage delivery model:

  1. Tenderingan initial stage to select viable ideas that were relevant and potentially deliverable that went to feasibility studies
  2. Feasibility studies with clinicians, patients and the NHS
  3. Tendering – for funding to build proof of concepts based on the feasibility studies
  4. Build proof of concepts, and deploy them if possible

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 plenty of change or exit points.

  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.

A clear, structured program framework built on risk management and mitigation gave us a set of tools to flexibly manage the Cancer Challenge. This approach guaranteed to funders and stakeholders that the Challenge could change our approach if we didn’t get the results we were looking for.

5. Don’t build another innovation network

Almost every project tries to build its own network. And if you’re a really large project or program (and I mean £10M+) then that makes (some) sense. But if you’re a smaller project and you want to have impact then don’t focus on building up your own network – focus on working with existing networks. Then you’re leveraging all the work someone else has done.

And there are plenty of networks out there that will be happy to work with you. Don’t re-invent the wheel.

6. Understanding the limits to partnership working in innovation

There are only three types of project partners:

  1. People/organisations who want to work with you
  2. People/organisations who will only work with you if you pay them to work with you
  3. People/organisations who don’t want to work with you

Make sure you understand which ‘type’ each partner you work with is. Confusion happens when you think people or organisations are type #1 when they’re actually in #2 (or #3). Innovation works best when you focus on the willing – on the people who want to work with you. Only work with type #3 if you have the time and money.

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