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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

What does an EdTech Innovation Fund look like from Nesta’s side?

London EdTech Week is over. It was a fun and busy time with lots of meet-ups, demos and talks spanning all-things-EdTech. I know that our EdTech team learnt a lot (and not just that holding two events on the same day is hard work) and had some really interesting conversations. Thank you to everyone who hosted us at various venues across the city.

Unsurprisingly, many people quizzed us about our EdTech Innovation Fund which we’re running in partnership with the Department for Education (DfE) (open for applications until the 15th July). The grant funding will support up to 20 organisations with up to £100,000 to improve, evaluate and grow the reach of digital tools across four challenge areas: formative assessment, essay marking, parental engagement and timetabling. It’s the first part of a larger £4.6 million programme of work.

Most of these questions had straightforward answers (and you can find information on eligibility and selection criteria, T&Cs, FAQs and application forms if you click ‘see more’ on our project page - there’s also a recording of a webinar we held to answer questions).

But I was also asked: What does running a grant fund look like from your side?

This is a great question. It’s easy to forget that the processes that lots of large funding organisations go through can seem confusing or opaque, despite efforts to be transparent and fair. And being a ‘funder’ can sometimes create real or perceived imbalances of power between funding organisations and ‘people-seeking-funding’ which are unhelpful or prevent open conversations. For more on this, read Cassie Robinson’s excellent ‘Weeknotes’ - a regular update on her work leading a £15m grant programme at the National Lottery Community Fund.

With this in mind, below are a few of the big issues that we’ve been thinking about over the last few weeks as we continue work on the ‘EdTech Innovation Fund’. (And I hope that this blog will be the first of more regular updates from me or colleagues, either published here or on LinkedIn).

1. The evidence challenge: ‘appropriate and commensurate’

A recurring question (through our Webinars and other conversations) from many potential applicants has been around ‘evidence’.

What forms of evidence will you accept? Which of Nesta’s ‘Standard’s of Evidence’ do I need to have reached?

This answer is not straightforward. Through the fund we want to ensure that we are able to support both more established products (perhaps already being used in hundreds of schools) alongside high-potential earlier-stage ideas. But of course, our expectations of evidence (and the amount of time and resources that organisations dedicate to evidence) should be commensurate and appropriate with the stage of development and reach of intervention.

In practice, this means we need to think of evidence as a journey. For example, a robust ‘theory of change’ or ‘logic model’ supported by appropriate academic literature might be the most appropriate form of evidence for an early-stage idea. Organisations may then seek to test the assumptions inherent in a theory of change by collecting appropriate information (which might be linked to intermediate or operation outcomes, rather than ultimate impact). At the other end of the spectrum is a large-scale ‘randomised control trial (RCT) - considered the gold standard of evidence - which enables organisations to make impact claims with a high degree of confidence.

In our work to design the fund, this has played in our design of assessment criteria. A major challenge for us has been to develop criteria which can:

  • Identify that an organisation has thought carefully about the evidence for the impact of their tool, and has ensured that evidence continues to play a role in the ongoing development of a tool.
  • Ensure that the focus of our assessment is on the appropriateness of evidence, as well as the strength of evidence, allowing us to compare earlier stage ideas with more developed products.

2. How do we bring in external advice for our funding decisions (with overloading people)?

We have been speaking widely with experts in the sector as we have developed the scope of the fund and our eligibility criteria (and thanks to the very many people who have helped us with this). But we’re also keen to engage with external experts more formally through an ‘Advisory Group’ to ensure that our work is improved by insights from a wide range of the most relevant expertise. (NB. This ‘advisory group’ is separate from the DfE’s own ‘EdTech Leadership Group’ and is specifically to advise on this grant fund).

The ‘Advisory Group’ will be made up of people with very differing experience and expertise (with backgrounds in teaching, school management, academia, evaluation, business development and investing). Although ultimately decision-making about who receives funding lies with Nesta and the Department for Education, the advisory group play a really important role in guiding and testing our thinking. The group will read all the shortlisted applications (around 40 - 50 submissions) and meet in-person to discuss each application with us before decisions are made.

We will share details of who is a part of the advisory group very soon.

3. The back-end processes

There is a lot of work that goes into designing and preparing the application form itself - balancing the need to gather information with an effort to reduce the amount of time required of applicants. After the application form design, there are a lot of people involved behind the scenes to turn a draft application form into the (somewhat) automated process that you find as you submit applications. From our legal team to Salesforce whizzkids - it’s a team effort.

For this fund we have opted for four separate application forms (one for each challenge area). We felt we needed to do this in order to get the specific information needed to make comparisons within the challenge areas (but for organisations wanting to apply across multiple challenge areas - apologies for any extra admin).

4. Attracting people who have never heard of us

Another big job has been to try and ensure that those unfamiliar with Nesta, but eligible for funding, know about the opportunity in time to submit a quality application. We’ve used a few different methods - from cold-emailing organisations that we came across during our initial scoping, to calling in favours to feature the fund in relevant newsletters, blogs or social media posts.

After generating interest, we held three webinars (with over 300 participants) to field your questions. You can find a recording of this and our updated FAQs based on common questions here. (But if you still have questions, you can contact [email protected]).

What’s next?

Applications will close on the 15th July, followed by a very busy two weeks as each application is scored by at least two people from Nesta or the DfE. We’re also developing our plans for the ‘EdTech Innovation Testbed’. We will be launching the specifics of the Testbed in the Autumn, but I hope we can provide some updates on our progress over the Summer.

In the meantime, do reach out to us if you have questions about the fund to [email protected]. We are a funding organisation, but we will try to be as open and collaborative as we can.


Toby Baker

Toby Baker

Toby Baker

Mission Manager, A Fairer Start

Toby worked with local governments to develop and pilot improvements to services that support young children and families.

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