May 2015 is the last chance for small businesses in the UK to apply for a unique source of aerospace research and development funding. That's when outline projects are due for the fifth and final funding call of the National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme (NATEP). These will be the last of its 120 or so projects and are due to be completed by 2017.

NATEP is unusual partly because it actually wants to engage with companies that don't know about R&D, or don't undertake R&D, at least in the shape of formal projects. Even the language of research grant applications can be foreign to them, according to Andrew Mair, CEO of the Midlands Aerospace Alliance, one of the six regional aerospace alliances supporting it: "According to our research, less than 10% of official R&D in aerospace is done in small companies. It's not that they are not innovative, but that they create new know-how and expertise informally, for instance on the shopfloor. It is hard to get them to work with their customers, universities and manufacturing Catapults and be even more innovative, because that's an unfamiliar world."

Although there are plenty of new ideas and new technologies generated in the UK, many at universities, these do not reach many of the smaller supply chain companies, without a push. Lacking connections to universities, support organisations or customers, the grassroots of the industry, thousands of small- and medium-size aerospace suppliers, are starved of vital nutrients.

NATEP's mission is to change hearts and minds: by encouraging more than 200 small aerospace firms to engage in R&D, a broader cultural change in the supply chain might just follow. The effort should be good for business too; NATEP estimates that the whole programme will generate or keep 1,200 jobs, or about 10 per project. Government financial support, 60% of the £40 million project's funding, comes from the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative fund. The other £17 million of funding comes from industry, from the suppliers themselves, topped up with the time, expertise and mentoring of experts from 20 aerospace primes and Tier 1s, including Airbus, Bombardier, Controls and Data Services, GKN Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and Spirit.

£150k PER PROJECT

For an average of £150,000 of government funding per project, matched in cash or in kind by the researching company, a NATEP project could turn an idea for a new technology, material, or a way of doing things into something much more concrete. And even if it may not take the company all the way to a new product, it will leave it with some vital research data, or a new process, for example, coupled with a route to market. A big benefit could simply be a boost in how companies see themselves, says Mair. "Many small companies are not confident that their ideas are good enough." He adds that there are many 'latent' ideas in supply chain companies that lay dormant, until they are encouraged.

Support and reassurance can also come from an unexpected source. Part of the project structure involves other supply chain players, mostly customers, who offer a slightly different perspective on the project development. "Often the most valuable part of customers' involvement is to give small businesses some confidence that they are on to something worthwhile," Mair offers.

The Midlands Aerospace Alliance CEO has watched the programme since before it was officially launched by then industry minister Michael Fallon in June 2013. Since then, there have been three more calls at six-monthly intervals. The last was in December 2014 and netted 80 ideas, the largest crop so far. As of mid-February 2015, NATEP has funded 46 (excluding those from Call 4, which has its project launch in May).

HOW IT ALL STARTED

NATEP is the brainchild of the national public-private body Aerospace Growth Partnership, managed by national aerospace trade body ADS and supported by the six UK regional aerospace alliances. NATEP lists the Midlands Aerospace Alliance office as one of the regional hubs, and for good reason.

Mair explains that NATEP grew out of a Midlands Aerospace Alliance initiative called ATEP. In 2005, he was involved with the alliance's technology working group, which was searching for a way to improve the technical capacity of the supply chain. He helped enlist 12 volunteer engineers, mostly from large organisations, to advise the suppliers. With about £1.2 million in funding from the Midlands Regional Development Agency, ATEP ran from 2006-12 in two rounds.

He says that he and the engineers were pleased with the results of the 11 ATEP projects, not only because some small companies made significant technical advances, but also because they proved the concept could work; that good research could actually be done at this level. "The amazing thing was that all 11 projects were completed. Although two technologies were ultimately not successful – during the project we realised that they wouldn't work – that's the nature of R&D and all the projects were completed," Mair underlines.

For Redditch-based small business G&O Springs, an ATEP project on the fatigue properties of aerospace materials positioned it as one of the leading companies for aerospace springs, vital research for the industry that it never would have contemplated carrying out on its own.

HOW TO APPLY

NATEP has published information for companies interested in the programme: www.natep.org.uk/how-to-bid. The first step would be a short outline application, "to show that there is a germ of an idea," says Mair. This is followed up by a visit from an expert staff member from the aerospace alliance that the company is working with, which does not necessarily have to be its local alliance.

The outline application is reviewed by a peer group, an advisory panel of industy experts. Either a formal application may follow or the company is advised why the project is not valid: perhaps it isn't really considered to be R&D, or it relates to a design that is not marketable.

Offers Mair: "This is very different to feedback in other tender competitions where they might get a score, but which is distant and not encouraging."

Full application follows, after which the company presents and discusses its idea in front of the advisory panel, followed up by more formal feedback. The success rate, fromoutline application to contract, is about 50%.

Project time frame is up to 18 months, with most of them small collaborations (a minimum of two entities is required), sometimes with a link to applied research at universities, but not necessarily always.

Support staff are available to help guide the less confident entrants through the project and instruct them in technology roadmapping and R&D programme-development skills that might be unfamiliar to a small business.


FOR MORE

Outline applications for Call 5 are due 14 May 2015, with full applications due 10 weeks later (30 July). Panel reviews of these are scheduled for early September 2015, with projects kicking off in November.

Continuing NATEP beyond Call 5 depends on funding from the next government and also the degree to which there is all-party agreement on industrial policy, Mair suggests. He says that the Aerospace Growth Partnership is examining what funding options there will be for the programme after the general election in May.