Grant 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.


  • Greg
    Did you look into rent-an-expert services like Google Answers and
  • Hi Greg. Yes, I'd seen Google Answers and several similar services. is less interesting - they're just a way of connecting paids ads with essentially anonymous telephone numbers. We saw ourselves providing an online directory service that had ratings so you could trust the person you were contacting. Our angle on services was a little different - we were thinking more along the lines of connecting up people who were experts at using, say, Photoshop from their home/office who could sell a little of their time (via a trusted payment mechanism) to another user who was troubled. We know that most people have skills that aren't shared by the people around them and perhaps those skills could be shared if the audience was wide enough. Whilst the telephone is good for immediate problem solving, text (through email and IM) has value for problems over a longer time-frame. VoIP would have been interesting, and video-VoIP too. Ah well, we'll never know for BookAnExpert. Interesting things will happen soon for ShowMeDo.