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This is Ian Ozsvald's blog (@IanOzsvald), I'm an entrepreneurial geek, a Data Science/ML/NLP/AI consultant, author of O'Reilly's High Performance Python book, co-organiser of PyDataLondon, a Pythonista, co-founder of ShowMeDo and also a Londoner. Here's a little more about me.

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21 November 2005 - 23:11Grant for Investigating an Innovative Idea

In an earlier post I alluded to a government-awarded grant that Kyran and I had used to evaluate a business idea. I hadn’t applied for a government grant before and it was a bit daunting – perhaps explaining the experience will be of benefit to other UK entrepreneurs.

Back in April I worked with the Sussex Innovation Centre to evaluate an idea dubbed BookAnExpert – a proposed website that would let anyone trade their knowledge with anyone who wanted to buy their time. The idea stemmed from my frustrations when trying to find someone for advice on web-API programming. I was working as a programming consultant in a web start-up and I wanted to buy the time of an experienced eBay API coder to ask a few hours of questions.

There is no website where you can find a rated, reputable person who would sell their time and knowledge by the hour. There are websites (e.g. RentACoder) when you can hire programmers for jobs, but none of these support short-term Q&A sessions. Since the service didn’t exist, I wondered if we should make one.

Mike Herd (Executive Director at the Innovation Centre) suggested we apply for the DTI’s Grant for Investigating an Innovative Idea (more details at Business Link). The scheme offers a grant of 75% of the cost of hiring consultants who can advise on an innovative idea.

The money is refunded retrospectively if the DTI agree that the work is up-to-scratch. This involved some risk as hiring the staff we wanted at SInC would cost several thousand pounds – we judged that the opportunity to learn and network would be worth far more than the risk of not receiving the refund.

Paul Jordan acted as mentor and a financial guide over the following months and Melanie Page provided market research and evaluation advice. Over the course of several months I learned a lot from my involvement with SInC – they helped shape our idea and and our approach to testing the market.

Ultimately I saw that the idea was unlikely to succeed – the pool of expertise required would take far too long (and probably cost a lot) to build. Before undertaking the grant I believed that we’d figure a way of making it work – possibly we’d have been in for an expensive lesson had we gone ahead with the site. The DTI were understanding – it seems a lot of ideas are canned or changed after one of these Grants. They liked the work and the refund was paid within a month.

In hindsight, was it worth it? I’d say yes – personally I learned a lot of new skills (principally to do with financial and market analysis) and the experience has shaped our thinking towards our new idea – ShowMeDo. I’ll talk more about that over the coming weeks.

I’d like to recommend the Sussex Innovation Centre to any entrepreneurs within reach of Brighton and thank Mike, Paul and Melanie for their help both during and since the Grant.

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