Competitive pitches are tiring out those chasing cash injections to support research, but investors still enthusiastically seek the ‘next big thing’, reports Mark Smulian
The money is out there to back smart mobility schemes of varying degrees of preparedness and feasibility.
But much of it comes from the public sector, which usually allocates money via what can be costly and complex formal competitions.
Meanwhile, the private sector will want to be convinced it is not being asked to throw money away on excessively speculative ventures.
‘Competition fatigue’ is a common complaint in local government circles, as councils assemble bids to secure money from Whitehall for smart transport schemes that will reach only ‘winners’ judged by processes that may be opaque.
The public sector remains a substantial source of funds to back new projects and ideas and it may be necessary in some cases to assemble complex public-private partnerships.
While Government still holds some relatively large purse strings, interest is growing from private investors on the lookout for the ‘next big thing’.
Even once a smart transport scheme has won a public funding competition, it can still be asked to secure matched funding, which means finding an investment firm or a partner with deep pockets.
Sometimes this process speeds up as investors develop a herd-like instinct and throw money at new businesses, as has happened with some internet start-ups and notoriously during the first and rapid ‘dotcom’ boom and bust 20 years ago.
Smart mobility has not yet reached that stage, but there is increasing interest.
Combination of partners
Public and private partnerships are not unusual, but it can require new thinking to line up the right combination of partners to test smart mobility schemes.
One company to successfully raise money from private investors is Oxbotica, which works in autonomous systems for transport and other industries.
Last year, it secured £14m from lead investor IP Group, working alongside Parkwalk Advisors and Axa XL.
Oxbotica software uses computer vision, machine learning and AI to allow vehicles to operate autonomously in any environment and on any terrain.
Michael Short, chief scientific adviser at the Department for International Trade, is involved both in efforts to export UK expertise and products in smart mobility and with inward investment by foreign firms keen to tap skills here.
Short says: “Most of this work is at the research stage, so there is interest from private equity and banks, but it is mostly Government and industry at present.
“The Government invests because it is concerned with UK transport as well as with industry and wants the right range of vehicles going forward.
Future mobility zones fund
For those wanting to develop and test smart mobility ideas, the money is out there – relatively generous grants from central and local government and potentially substantial sums from private sources.
Having an idea that is technically sound and of practical application may not be enough though.
Successful bidders must understand what funders want: it may be political priorities for the Government or, in the case of the private sector, assurances that an investment will not vanish down some blind alley.
Crack that though and the money may be found since it’s clear that in Whitehall, town halls and the offices of investment firms, smart mobility is an idea whose time has come.
No one wants to miss out.
Read Mark Smulian's full article on funding the development of new mobility projects from the Smart Transport Journal