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Case Study: The Design Option

The concept of a Design Option was introduced into selected R&D projects in 2011. Among these was the Sepsis 1 programme - a £5m collaborative R&D competition which sought to develop point-of-care diagnostic tools to assist clinicians and health workers in the management of sepsis. Another programme was the Stratified Medicine SBRI call, where £7.5m is on offer for the development of novel and innovative diagnostic tests and assessments to determine an individual patient’s response to therapeutic intervention.



The Design Option provided prospective bidders with access to a Design Mentor. Undertaken while bids were being prepared, the Design Option brought the design process to the beginning of the R&D process - working with project partners to interrogate project plans and project assumptions, as well as providing the opportunity to think through issues such as user-engagement, product and service design, and marketing.

Although it is yet to be formally evaluated, early indications suggest that companies taking up the Design Option had a higher ratio of successful bids (noting that in at least one case, a potential applicant opted NOT to apply, as a result of the session with a Design Mentor).

Here is some more background information on the Design Option, from Jim Dawton - who was instrumental in setting up the Option:

Over the last year the Design Option has been run as part of collaborative R&D competition - the Sepsis I Point of Care Medical Device project - and an SBRI project: Stratified Medicine- Determining Patient Response. This article will shed some light on the Design Option, its context, the approach taken for development and how it works.


The Design Option in Context

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has five key areas of focus and of these, three are relevant to the Design Option:

  • Accelerating the journey between concept and commercialisation
  • Connecting the innovation landscape
  • Continuously improving our capability

In the first point design, in all its facets, has a core role to play, not just in getting the idea to market but in ensuring that when the idea gets there it stands a better chance of being successful. In the second point, designers are part of the innovation landscape already so they have a key role in adding to the connection possibilities. Thirdly, design is not a core strength of the TSB and therefore the addition of the Design Option adds to capability.

The Design Option’s role

The TSB recognises that design is a core ingredient to any R&D project and the initial challenge was to work out and agree where it should best sit within TSB challenges.

As this was a new offer, the development team did not want to push the design message too hard but needed to ensure that an impact was achieved through the first pilot to continue the project.

The ultimate goal for the Design Option is to improve project outcomes that are supported via the various competitions and challenges the TSB runs, to help deliver these projects more cost effectively and to ensure more and better levels of commercial success for the companies and consortia involved.

What do we mean by Design?

For the purposes of the Design Option, design means product or service design, brand and communications as well as the user experience. There are other types of design such as engineering design, molecular design and the design of experiments but these are not supported by the Design Option.

The development team felt that by keeping the definition of design tight and focusing on what it can bring to the concept or idea under development would make it easier to position design within an R&D project. Moreover, the Design Option covers two days of free mentoring and the amount of material that could be covered would be limited by the time available.

The key message is that design can have a significant impact on a project if introduced at the right time (which is discussed as part of the mentoring) and not left traditionally to the end of the project as an ‘add on’. The role of design in creating desirability, usability and feasibility is covered as part of the programme and is tailored by the mentor as they understand the consortia’s needs for their project.

The Project Approach

The decision to support a selection of mentors was arrived at through understanding the range of projects the TSB collaborate on, support and run over a year. The diverse nature of these projects suggested that developing a singular approach would not work and that each project approach and consortia would be different. An assumption was also made on the different levels of understanding and experience of design each consortia might have and their different needs for each project.

Each mentor has been selected for their industry experience and their ability to inspire and communicate the benefits of a holistic approach to design. They will be able to discuss how design can have a long term impact on a project and suggest how to and where to use design in a project.

How it works

Design mentors are made available to companies who request the Design Option and are in scope with the competition brief. The TSB is responsible for selecting the mentors to offer companies but it is up to a company to select who they want to work with. The mentor then works with their company at the pre response stage to ensure that any ideas or new knowledge discussed as part of the mentoring can be incorporated into a competition response.

Typically, in the first meeting a mentor will introduce the idea of design and work with their company to understand what they need going forwards and how the design might be applied to their bid. The mentors are free to do this as they feel would most suit the company. There is no prescribed route or ‘one approach suits all’.  No project information is exchanged with the TSB and the only feedback a mentor is required to give is based on the programme management and how they felt their interaction went. This is used to further refine the Design Option approach and offer.

It should be noted that the take up of the Design Option is not a requirement for a successful project application and to date applications have been limited in quantity but those that have been received so far have proven to be very high in quality. A third pilot is in the planning.

The Design Option:


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