Avoiding the cliff edge of creative R+D

Even the best R+D ideas take a lot longer to get into any market without financial support and the right form of business vehicle. At Upstarter we see creative founders running out of money, and taking a wrong turn due to an unhelpful funding opportunity. Or taking years to make it happen. Or they get worn down so much that they give up. There is a huge untapped potential that simply does not get a chance to blossom. It just falls off the cliff.

We have recently lived through a golden age of creative R&D programmes. Though I am sure for many it does not feel so golden. What if we could increase our ability to boost exciting R&D ideas? What if we increased our ability to create successful products, services and experiences in the world. Create more value. And in so doing create new creative companies and the sector?

Recent inspired R&D programmes and initiatives have produced and nurtured some truly great ideas. Think Audience of the Future, Clusters and other funded programmes. I’ve been lucky to be close to this action through a long term collaboration with Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio, and UWE, and other academic partnerships. Back in 2016 I supported the REACT Alumni, later creating a programme for South West Creative Technology Network in 2019. This brought business development to SWCTN's immersion, automation and data R&D explorations. Now in the Bristol + Bath Creative R+D part of the Clusters programme I get to work with Crack, Stormjar, Trigger Stuff amongst many other pioneers. In my work I see how people on creative R&D programmes are highly skilled in identifying whole new applications of technologies with the power of their creative approaches. Over time a perspective gets built around the nature of local creative R+D ecologies, and directly key stages of their development.

I am always uplifted by new emergent ideas, where they are full of potential and promise. Coming from the corporate R&D innovation and consultancy world, I have experienced what well-funded and resourced R&D looks like. A combination of dedicated time, space, talent and roadmaps of dynamic development, all focussed on building out the idea into a delightful product, service or experience.

As R&D programmes showcase prototypes and work in progress, we see that they are ripe with possibilities. But what actually happens when the programme ends? I see creative micro businesses experience a cliff edge. This is the point where the support stops as the programme ends. Teams who have been under pressure to deliver shiny new demonstrators then find themselves left on their own to take the next steps. This is often without a clear idea of what they need to do, and through no fault of their own.

One way of compensating for this cliff edge as a funder is to consider the path of their development in your process - where do they go next? It is possible to minimise this cliff edge by designing-in the means to consider how creative business people can move these ideas forward.  This approach means extending your focus to the 'what’s next' part - where do they get to with you. How does this connect with their next stage? Do they want their idea to be bought by a company with deep pockets? Or do they want finance to make the business scale by creative-friendly VC or impact investors? Essentially, how do we help them to get into the place where their idea, offer, market and business model is clear and appealing?

In some creative R&D programmes, valuable support comes in the form of timely and tailored creative business development. This is the kind of work I do right now for B+B Creative R+D, part of the Clusters programme. The work starts with where the companies are in their business development journey, with what they feel they know about how business works. Working on R&D programmes allows me to introduce business thinking as the R&D is being prototyped. I get to bring in experienced creative founders: inspiring pioneers who share their distinctive and hard won approach to business creation and growth. In Upstarter we help our companies grasp traditional business components with a creative mindset and adapt them for their own journeys. We wrap our work with peer support and challenge creatives to find their own way of approaching making a business: a vehicle to support their idea and their part in it.

Funders can build on this thinking and expand their work in a few ways at the early stages of a new programme, including:

  • identify the edges around your programmes, what else is on offer to people with project ideas like this - this will be different in each location
  • actively design the connection between your programme and their next possible steps
  • design temporary connecting programmes where they do not yet exist
  • invest in business development work as well as for the R+D work
  • build into your programmes the flexibility to react to and support SMEs with timely business development support to exploit emerging opportunities going to market or capitalising on investment opportunities

Being close to creative R&D action is an exhilarating experience. It’s a privilege to observe how hard teams work within these funded programmes. If we could more successfully enable the progress of these ideas, we could harness the massive potential value created by those engaged in creative R&D. To do so we must prevent the emergence of cliff-edges by closing that gap between programmes ending and successful next steps. By thoughtful planning in how we design our programmes we can avoid the cliff edge.


This article was commissioned by Audience Labs as part cross-industry consultation commissioned by AHRC exploring the emergent creative and economic possibilities at the intersection of performance, culture, technology and innovation.

This contribution was written by:

Gill Wildman - Director, Upstarter

Gill Wildman is director of Upstarter, a strategic designer working with extensive experience in new product and service development with new technologies. She works with many academic collaborations, cultural R+D partnerships and funders to advise, design & deliver productive work for creative R+D. She has worked on REACT Alumni in 2016, South West Creative Technology Network in 2019, bringing business development to its immersion, automation and data R&D explorations, and now in the Bristol + Bath Creative R+D part of the Clusters programme. Upstarter is her creative and social business incubator - a side hustle turned established business. She has designed many innovation processes, workshops and labs. With her agency Plot, she has consulted for BBC, Nokia, Oculus, Microsoft, IKEA, Facebook and many others. She holds a PhD in Strategic Design Practice from RMIT Melbourne.