An interview with Thanh Quan-Nicholls, Lead for the Digital Innovation Fund at UWE

December 21st 2020

“I’m here to help SMEs engage with the opportunities and knowledge-base at the University West of England – its such a great time to be working in innovation” - Thanh Quan-Nicholls.

Thanh Quan-Nicholls is the lead for the Digital Innovation Fund (DIF) at the University of the West of England (UWE). We caught up with Thanh to find out more about her role, some of the work the team do to support start-ups and SMEs, and their plans to expand  the business support offering in 2021.


Tell us a bit about you and your role

I’m the lead for the Digital Innovation Fund at UWE. I look after one of the four Business Support programmes that are managed by UWE’s Research Business and Innovation Team.

The Digital Innovation Fund has £1.2m in grants to support innovative SMEs who are delivering digital R&D projects. For this programme, the businesses have to be based in the West of England which is Bristol, Bath, South Gloucestershire or North Somerset. We provide between £10-40K for 35% of project costs.

My role is to engage SMEs and support digital innovation, growth and partnerships in the region.

What work have you done this year to support businesses?

We are really pleased to have run two funding rounds in this lockdown year, reaching out to hundreds of businesses in the West of England region. So far we have allocated about £600K and have identified 20 innovation projects for our support. We have just closed our 2nd round and the recommendation panel will meet in January 2021 to make their decision.

Uniquely, UWE provides 1:1 support for grant applications with our expert bid writers from across the team. We found that because of Covid-19, there were many more businesses applying for funding who had never done it before. In response to this, we created a short course in Innovation and Bid Writing in October – working closely with Aimee (Innovation Manager at Future Space) and with experts from UWE. We trialled on-line interactive tools and had an amazing facilitation team  to run an engaging and interactive course on-line. We’ve had great feedback so now are looking at how we can do some more short courses!

For those that missed the course, Thanh wrote a blog about top tips for innovation bid writing.

Why is this work important?

It has been a very challenging year for businesses with so many changes to the way we work, interact and communicate. Now more than ever, we need businesses to innovate, disrupt and exploit new opportunities. If you know where to look, there is a lot of funding opportunities out there for businesses to deliver innovation. Luckily, UWE is in a good position to help businesses to develop the skills they need to access this funding. An injection of funding can unlock exciting R&D projects which will transform businesses, helping them to create new products or services, reach new markets, and be more competitive. Our aim is that over time, they will create jobs and increase productivity for the region.

What’s in the pipeline for 2021?

Next year, UWE will expand our business support offer with Robin Halpenny heading up the Business Support and Grants Team. We will launch two new programmes in Gloucestershire and Swindon and Wiltshire, extending our support for innovation and growth to SMEs across a much wider region. Watch this space for more information!

The Digital Innovation Fund will focus on the delivery phase, supporting innovation projects towards to completion. We will be running more innovation workshops and events to support innovation networks, business engagement and create new partnerships.

As a university, we are committed to our work with SMES and innovation because we know that this will be driving force for creating new jobs, economic recovery and growth.

“I’m feeling optimistic about 2021 - UWE is expanding its supporting for businesses to innovate, grow and bring prosperity to the region” - Robin Halpenny.

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