SBRI: FOAK 2023 – Reliable and Maintainable Assets Rail Demonstrations

Key Features

Organisations can apply for a share of £5.3 million, inclusive of VAT, across 3 themes, to develop a prototype and undertake field testing for up to 12 months. The focus for First of a Kind 2023 is cost efficiency and increasing value for money.

Programme:     Department for Transport

Award:     Share of up to £5.3 million

Opens: 14th Jun 2023

Closes: 26th Jul 2023

! This scheme is now closed


This is a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition funded by the Department for Transport (DfT).


The aim of the competition is to deliver high maturity demonstrations of innovations to the UK railways. Your project must support the overarching principle for FOAK 2023: cost efficiency and increasing value for money.

Delivering financial sustainability is a strategic objective of the long term strategy for rail and a pressing need for the sector, given a drop in revenue and increasing costs in the light of inflation.

Your project, regardless of priority theme, must demonstrate how you will improve value for money through increasing revenue or reducing costs whilst delivering positive outcomes related to this competitions theme which is: reliable and easy to maintain assets.

Your proposal must also provide robust evidence supported by a rail partner.

You must demonstrate how proven technologies can be integrated into a railway environment for the first time as ‘First of a Kind’ demonstrations. This competition aims to support innovative suppliers in preparation for market readiness.

You must describe your projects potential to be successfully exploited in a railway environment. We encourage you to discuss regulations, policy and other requirements with potential customer organisations before you submit your application.

Your project must:

  • show how the technology delivers cost efficiency and increasing value for money to the railway industry and UK taxpayers
  • gather evidence about the integration challenges and explain how you will de-risk the integration
  • demonstrate to railway stakeholders and customers the commercial benefits of the solution
  • make taking up technologies less risky and faster
  • be pre-commercial
  • collect customer and performance feedback
  • provide a business case for using the solution in a commercial environment
  • consider the priorities of current and future franchises
  • include an evaluation phase, collecting data to support the cost benefit assessment of your proposed solution

You must provide evidence, showing your innovation can attract customers, get insurance, supply warranties, and attract financing.

Your evidence must show:

  • the technology works as designed when integrated into larger complex systems and delivers the expected outcomes
  • the technology is accepted by and delivers benefits for customers and the broader rail industry
  • there is revenue potential for the innovation within a real commercial context
  • the financing and business models can be delivered within a complex programme and consortium structure

You must demonstrate potential benefits to passengers and customers, including:

  • why customers would buy the product
  • how the funding will help applicants grow and result in broader economic benefits

Department for Transport will give preference to applications which:

  • help the innovation to be formally accepted for use on the railway, for example, through obtaining test certificates or product acceptance approvals
  • offer innovations that can be used by multiple railway organisations

You must also include an evaluation activity to identify the cost and benefits of your deliverables, and to support commercial uptake of your product.

You must present at an industry briefing event to highlight the benefits you can bring to the railways.

Demonstration Event

Your project must create a highly interactive and innovative demonstrator in a railway environment which will enable the most effective demonstration of the technology.

The most appropriate environment for this must be agreed with your rail industry partners. In their role as potential future customers, they will be well-placed to propose an appropriately representative railway environment.

This must be a railway environment where railway customers and industry representatives can witness the product as a compelling business proposition and must be as close to a live railway environment as possible.

The demonstration of your innovation is a key deliverable and must be included as part of your milestones.

You must work with your railway partners to achieve this, obtaining all required permissions and approvals. This must take the form of a launch event at, for example, a railway station or depot, attended by a range of industry stakeholders with potential interest in your product.

Example environments can include:

  • within a railway station
  • in rolling stock
  • on railway infrastructure
  • in the environment close to the railway

This list is not exhaustive, however, and others may be more appropriate to demonstrate certain types of technology.

Where required, the event may be online to access a wider selection of stakeholders. However, in this case the events must be augmented by evidence of your deployment in a railway environment.

You should de-risk all aspects of this before bidding into this competition to ensure that it can be delivered to the requirements of DfT and Innovate UK.

Evaluation Activity

You must complete an evaluation activity at the end of the project, measuring data to anticipate the commercial impact that adoption of the innovation will have on the railway network.

This evaluation must be specific to your project and evaluate the immediate effectiveness of your technology and the project direct outputs and activities.

This can include the evaluation of the:

  • Increased capacity
  • Increased cost efficiency
  • Increased process efficiency
  • Improved data availability
  • Cost differences between new and old part
  • Increased service reliability and improvement in performance measures
  • Improved customer experience
  • Reduced number of closures or major incidents (absolute number)

This can be a measurement of the time taken to complete a task or the costs incurred before and after adoption of the technology. Alternatively, the activity might take the form of a survey of railway staff to solicit feedback and to anticipate cost benefit.

In all cases, the collection of objective data where possible is preferred over the collection of subjective feedback.

This information should be used to inform the future business case for your innovation. Involvement of individuals with expertise in designing such evaluation activities will benefit your application.

You must summarise your findings in your End of Project report. The report template will be provided to you at the beginning of your project.

Contracts will be given to successful applicants.

You must demonstrate a credible and practical route to market, so your application must include a plan to commercialise your results.

Specific Themes

In this competition your project must focus on:

Theme 2 – Reliable and Easy to Maintain Assets

In this theme we are seeking projects which will help extend the life of rolling stock and passenger-facing assets specifically, make their repair and maintenance easier and more cost-effective, or enable them to better deliver for customers.

Possible examples include:

  • innovation to help prioritise rolling stock and passenger-facing assets for improvements to their reliability and availability
  • innovation to support the reporting of defects and repairs, including customer reporting, allowing a system-level diagnosis of complex faults
  • future proof design of trains and station environment with a focus on upkeep and repairs
  • non-destructive testing and predictive maintenance, including digital twin and customer feedback, weather resilience
  • innovation to encourage behaviour change in customers in tidying up after themselves and reporting failures and faults
  • innovation to support automation and minimising human manual input in cleaning and inspection of the train interiors, including toilets
  • innovation towards demonstrating robotic and AI inspections in live environments with remote supervision, including a demonstration of initial robotic and AI repair, drones and 3D printing
  • roll out of robotics and AI inspection of rolling stock and passenger facing assets
  • future proof design to achieve faster and lower cost maintenance

Note that although software (also known as applications) for mobile devices may be in scope, only a limited number of these projects will be supported.

Prototype development and evaluation

This can include prototyping, demonstrating, piloting, testing and validation of new or improved products, processes or services in environments representative of real-life operating conditions. The primary objective is to make further technical improvements on products, processes or services that are not substantially set.


Projects must:

  • start by 1 October 2023
  • end by 30 September 2024
  • last up to 12 months


To lead a project, you must:

  • be an organisation of any size
  • work alone or with others from business, research organisations, research and technology organisations or the third sector as subcontractors
  • carry out your project work and demonstration in the UK

Applicants are welcome from all sectors. You can work alone or with other organisations as subcontractor.

Your project must involve:

  • an owner of railway assets for example stations, rolling stock or infrastructure
  • an experienced railway organisation
  • a rail organisation that has the potential to become a customer

These criteria can be met by a single organisation or up to three separate organisations.

You must also:

  • include a potential integration partner
  • have a letter of support signed by a senior individual, from a railway organisation with a potential to become a customer

Department for Transport recommend you approach your potential integration partners as early as possible during the application process. This to ensure your industry relationships are well established before the competition closing date, so you are able to have their support from the beginning of the project.

Proposals into this competition must already be high maturity at Rail Industry Readiness level 5 or above. You must show evidence of this as part of your application.

You must include an organisation with railway expertise, such as train operating companies, a freight operator, rolling stock manufacturers or operators and infrastructure owners.

Department for Transport welcome projects that include an innovative start-up supply company that is already delivering in another sector.

This competition will not fund any procurement, commercial, business development or supply chain activity with any Russian or Belarusian entity as lead or subcontractor. This includes any goods or services originating from a Russian or Belarusian source.

Contracts will be awarded to a single legal entity only. However, if you can justify subcontracting components of the work, you can engage specialists or advisers. This work will still be the responsibility of the main contractor.

If you are awarded a contract, you will be invited to exhibit your project at the 2024 and 2025 Innovate UK annual rail exhibition, and we also expect you to exhibit at the future events once your project is complete. We will notify you of the date and location of the events, when available.

Department for Transport will provide the space and advise you of any technology you need to organise. You will also be able to lease equipment from the venue through us.

Previously funded projects

If you have previously been funded for the same or similar innovations, you will not be eligible for this competition. Applications for this competition need to be materially different from previously funded innovations. The decision of Innovate UK and DfT on this matter will be final.


Department for Transport will not fund projects that:

  • are not likely to be successfully exploited by the rail industry to deliver benefits to rail or light-rail organisations and their customers
  • are not within a year of being ready for market
  • do not create a significant change in the level of innovation available in the rail industry
  • are not already well-developed technology at Rail Industry Readiness level 5 or above, or do not have low technical risk
  • cannot effectively deliver a demonstration within a railway environment as required
  • do not feature a demonstration phase, offering potential customers a chance to use the innovation and give feedback
  • do not include an evaluation phase, and a plan to collect information to inform a cost or benefit analysis
  • have total eligible costs or project terms outside of the eligibility guidance
  • would directly duplicate other UK government or EU funded initiatives you have already been funded to deliver
  • are covered by existing commercial agreements to deliver the proposed solutions
  • do not address how any potentially negative outcomes, such as on the environment or society, would be managed

Funding Costs

A total of up to £5.3 million, inclusive of VAT, has been allocated to the 3 themes below.

Department for Transport expect to fund between 10 and 20 projects across the 3 themes. Each project should last up to 12 months.

For theme 1 – Customer Experience – your project can range in size up to total costs of £300,000, inclusive of VAT.

For theme 2 – Reliable and Easy to Maintain Assets (this competition) – your project can range in size up to total costs of £400,000, inclusive of VAT.

For theme 3 – Optimised Train Operations – your project can range in size up to total costs of £400,000, inclusive of VAT.

The total DfT funding may be split between three themes in an approximate ratio of 40% for Customer Experience theme, 30% for Reliable and Easy to Maintain Assets theme and 30% for Optimised Train Operations theme.

The total funding available for the competition can change. The funders have the right to:

  • adjust the provisional funding allocations between the competition themes
  • apply a ‘portfolio’ approach

All awarded projects must spend 50% of the funding by 31 March 2024 and remaining 50% of the funding must be spent by 30 September 2024. This must be reflected in the eligible project cost breakdown and your milestones.

You must select which scope theme you are applying for. If a project covers more than one theme, choose one where most of the work is being undertaken.

It is your responsibility to ensure you submit your application to the correct theme for your project. You will not be able to transfer your application and it will not be sent for assessment if it is out of scope.

The contract is completed at the end of the competition, and the successful organisation is expected to pursue commercialisation of their solution.

Value Added Tax (VAT)

You must select whether you are VAT registered before entering your project costs.

VAT is the responsibility of the invoicing business. We will not provide any further advice and suggest you seek independent advice from HMRC.

VAT registered

If you select you are VAT registered, you must enter your project costs exclusive of VAT. As part of the application process VAT will be automatically calculated and added to your project cost total.

Your total project costs inclusive of VAT must not exceed £400,000 for the Reliable and Easy to Maintain Assets theme.

Not VAT registered

If you select you are not VAT registered, you must enter your project costs exclusive of VAT and no VAT will be added. You will not be able to increase total project costs to cover VAT later should you become VAT registered.

Your total project costs must not exceed £400,000 for the Reliable and Easy to Maintain Assets theme.

Research and development

Your application must have at least 50% of the contract value attributed directly and exclusively to R&D services, including solution exploration and design. R&D can also include prototyping and field-testing the product or service. This lets you incorporate the results of your exploration and design and demonstrate that you can produce in quantity to acceptable quality standards.

R&D does not include:

  • commercial development activities such as quantity production
  • supply to establish commercial viability or to recover R&D costs
  • integration, customisation or incremental adaptations and improvements to existing products or processes

SBRI competitions involve procurement of R&D services at a fair market value and are not subject to subsidy control criteria that typically apply to grant funding.

Interested in applying for this competition?

Book an appointment to speak to one of our advisors to discuss your eligibility to apply for this Grant Funding opportunity.