Redefining procurement: Custom solutions for the UK's biggest challenges

The public sector is under pressure to do more with less. Contracts for Innovation is enabling organisations to help create bespoke solutions and become early adopters of cutting-edge innovation
NHS Wales Pathology used Contracts for Innovation to help diagnose prostate cancer more quickly. Credit: Ibex Medical Analytics

Contracts for Innovation is an important initiative led by Innovate UK to solve critical public sector challenges and drive economic growth by awarding 100% funded research and development (R&D) contracts to innovative organisations. Contracts for Innovation is enabling the public sector to help create bespoke solutions and become early adopters of cutting-edge innovation by opening funding competitions to address public sector challenges where there are no readily available market solutions.

Founded in 2008, and previously known as the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), Contracts for Innovation is a key component in the UK’s innovation ecosystem. It’s part of a public sector procurement culture shift that’s creating a simpler and more flexible commercial system that better meets our country’s needs, opens public procurement to more businesses, and embeds transparency through the commercial lifecycle. Contracts for Innovation is a key element of the delivery of both the Science and Technology Framework and Innovation Ambition of the Transforming Public Procurement programme.

Major government departments and agencies such as Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), the Department for Transport (DfT), the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the NHS have used Contracts for Innovation to channel over £1.8 billion to innovative organisations in 100% funded R&D contracts to respond to public sector needs. Previous projects have helped to deliver improved health outcomes, support net zero ambitions, address inequalities, increase revenue,and cut costs.

Solving pressing public sector challenges

NHS Wales pathologists review 4 million glass slides holding prostate tissue samples from 100,000 men in Wales each year. However, the number of men biopsied is expected to double by 2030, and the tests performed are increasingly complex. Adding to the pressure, there is a shortage of pathologists.

With no obvious market solutions available, the Welsh Government funded the SBRI Centre of Excellence to support Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board to define and issue a funding competition. Ibex Medical Analytics responded by proposing a novel AI tool to analyse digital images of pathology samples, classifying them through a traffic light system prior to a review by clinicians. This meant the most urgent cases could be prioritised, improving patient outcomes and supporting NHS Wales’ Suspected Cancer Pathway targets to diagnose cancer more quickly.

The Contracts for Innovation competition enabled Ibex to develop their Galen AI platform, which has achieved a 13% increase in prostate cancer detection. The Galen AI is now undergoing further testing within six health boards to become part of routine prostate cancer testing. Ibex is also exploring how the platform can help identify additional cancers.

“Galen AI shows how procurement can support innovators to address the challenges facing the world today while improving the UK’s public services. Thanks to this project, Wales is forging ahead in the clinical utilisation of AI, with more than 60% of our prostate cases being reported by the system, reducing the number of missed tumours and supporting our pathologists to deliver faster diagnoses. And behind every biopsy slide, we all know there’s a real person – someone’s husband, brother or dad, and what that biopsy means to them.” Joy Browning, Partnership Manager for the SBRI Centre of Excellence in Wales.

Perineural invasion heatmap
Perineural invasion heatmap. Credit: Ibex Medical Analytics

Driving innovation

Contracts for Innovation is also enabling innovators to address the UK’s challenges of tomorrow. An R&D contract enabled start-up company Watermarq to develop a high-resolution water supply and demand analytics solution using Earth observation data. This is used to help organisations and governments make decisions around water scarcity. The approach is currently being validated in various developing countries, but the analysis is also relevant to the UK.

George Carew-Jones, Operations Lead at Watermarq, explained: “It’s easy to believe water isn’t too much of a problem in the UK, but there are a lot of water scarcity issues coming down the road. We need more climate change adaptation planning to look at the changing weather patterns here, and what to do about it. Thanks to Contracts for Innovation support, our solution can help to improve the lives of many people, here and abroad.”

Rain anomalies in Zambia. Credit: Watermarq
Rain anomalies in Zambia. Credit: Watermarq

Contracts for Innovation has also supported innovative companies like Transreport, which recognised the barriers experienced by disabled passengers when booking passenger assistance on public transport. Transreport secured initial funding of £350,000 to develop their award-winning Passenger Assistance app, which is now used by every train company in the UK. The Passenger Assistance app has been welcomed by the DfT as it supports its aims of increasing the accessibility of public transport and improving operational efficiency in transport hubs.

Jay Shen, CEO of Transreport said, “The funding helped us to grow from a start-up business with six employees to a business with £4m annual revenue and over 100 employees. We are now seeing interest from Japan, Australia and the Middle East, providing export opportunities for the UK as well as diversifying into other transport modes such as the aviation industry. None of this would be possible without the Contracts for Innovation funding and support from Innovate UK.”

Dr Ian Brotherston, Interim Deputy Director, Innovation Funding at Innovate UK, commented, “Contracts for Innovation stimulates UK economic growth by harnessing the power of public procurement to accelerate innovation, which solves currently unmet public sector needs. We are working closely with the Cabinet Office and Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to make innovation central to public sector procurement. If you are a public sector organisation struggling to find readily available market solutions to meet a specific challenge, contact Innovate UK to find out how Contracts for Innovation can meet your needs.”

Find out more information about Contracts for Innovation here.

Transreport’s Passenger Assistance app is now the national exclusive system provider for all the train companies in this country for assistance booking.
Transreport’s Passenger Assistance app is now the national exclusive system provider for all the train companies in this country for assistance booking. Credit: Transreport



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