Design Council is searching for stand-out product ideas for the 2017 Spark programme. It's a unique opportunity to access design innovation to develop a new product. For the most successful participants it is also a shot at a share of £200K of funding. We asked Marion Gillet, Spark Programme Lead and Ellie Runcie, Director of Growth and Innovation at the Design Council, to share with us just what it takes to become a Spark finalist.

Design Council Spark has run for two years and spawned 23 product ideas from 23 innovators. “The ambition is to support every one of the selected participants to the point where they can confidently progress their product idea to market,” says Marion Gillet. “We want them to launch pioneering and lasting products.”

Beyond the support to individual applicants the programme aims to benefit the national economy and design sector. “The programme advances product innovation,” says Ellie Runcie, “in a climate where digital services are so prevalent in our economy it is an important reminder of how important products are in people’s lives.”

Last year’s finalists included medical professionals, teachers, a retired taxi driver and a national parks consultant alongside designers and engineers.

Typically applicants come from very different backgrounds. Some may have experience in design, but many don’t. A background in design is no indicator of success. Last year’s finalists included medical professionals, teachers, a retired taxi driver and a national parks consultant alongside designers and engineers.

“All the applicants are given both the commercial and strategic design support they need as individuals to progress their projects”, says Ellie. In return finalists pledge a percentage of their future sales of their product to the Design Council, which is used to fund further Spark finalists. “Unlike other accelerators we don’t take any equity in the business, we are focussed entirely on the products we are supporting - their success could fund someone else's success.”   


Spark finalist Avril O'Neill, of Studio ONN, created a doorbell that connected to your phone.

So how do you become a Spark finalist? The first stage of selection is completed by the investment panel who sift through the online applications and invite 30 projects to the next stage. The Spark team have distilled the attributes they are looking for into the following criteria:


Criteria for Spark: I.D.E.A.S.

Impactful: It has strong potential for timely commercial impact.

In order to have commercial impact, many successful products first need to solve a real problem or identify an unmet need in the market. “This is top of mind for our investment panel when they make their selections because it is the only way to be sure we are supporting products with the most potential” says Marion.

Desirable: It is clear who it is for and why they will want it.

Applicants need to be able to demonstrate that their idea is going to be desirable. Most people want a product when it offers them something they don’t already have, solves a problem or meets a need in an way and at a price they are prepared to pay. To evidence this, some applicants demonstrate a deep knowledge of the particular market they are targeting and the problems they are trying to solve.

“Wendy Minks, the doctor behind Rhinamite, is a great example of this,” says Ellie. “As a doctor she had a deep knowledge of her market. She also had an authentic connection with her users and the problems they were facing.” Applicants without such direct specialist knowledge would need to demonstrate and evidence their understanding of the market in some way.


Dr Wendy Minks and business partner Richard Blakeborough, the team behind the Spark-awarded, Rhinamite.

Economic: It enables a business model that generates significant returns.  

“The applicants that stand out are the ones that, no matter what their background, can talk about the commercial opportunities around their idea not just its specific application,” says Marion. “They often demonstrate this by referencing other similar products or potential competitors. The investment panel can see that they have done research, they understand the market in which their product will compete.”

During the programme and to progress to each stage, successful applicants must continue to demonstrate their idea’s potential to build a sustainable business model, supported by specialist advice and guidance throughout.

Achievable: It can be developed easily, inexpensively, and quickly. 

Applicants need to be able demonstrate how they will use the support and funding to make a substantial difference to their idea within the 16-weeks that the programme runs. This is how the investment panel will assess all applicants through the answers they provide and the short pitches they film about themselves and their product idea. Successful applicants who have made it onto the 16-week programme will be supported and advised on how their funding will enable them to accelerate their product idea.


Rockit, the portable rocker that helps soothe babies into slumber, was a Spark awardee from 2016.

Sparky: It is developed by an insightful, engaged and driven individual.

Applicants are also assessed based on their behaviours, their values and attitudes. The personal attributes that the successful candidates tend to display, is their ‘sparkiness'. As Marion commented, “What immediately struck me about the previous successful applicants, was how many questions they asked. They were literally hungry for knowledge, really open to the advice and support they were given. For me that is the sign of a very coachable person.”  

The applicants that stand out are the ones that can talk about the commercial opportunities around their idea not just its specific application.

Marion Gillet, Design Council spark

The Spark Process

The Spark programme is designed to benefit everyone who takes part no matter what the stage of their product idea. Even just answering the questions in the application form should encourage applicants to think about their projects very carefully. From the hundreds of initial entries, 30 applicants will be selected to attend the Spark Design Camp. This two-day camp is an intensive but supportive experience at which the applicants will be challenged to try out different approaches to strengthen and better communicate their pitch.

The applicant’s final task at the design-camp will be to pitch their idea on camera for the investment panel, who will then re-assess the progress of the applicants and select the 13 ventures, with the strongest commercial potential, to be finalists on the Spark programme.

The finalists undertake a 16-week programme and will receive £15,000 funding. Over that time they will attend five one-day workshops, each designed to build on their idea and strengthen its commercial potential. In addition they receive three days of one-to-one coaching from a dedicated specialist.  At the end of the Spark programme, all finalists will have the opportunity to pitch for a share of £200K of funding to take their ideas to the next level.

Applying for Spark

If you are planning on applying to the programme Marion has one more piece of advice: “Think extremely hard about the words you use on your application,” she says. “I can’t stress enough – LESS IS MORE. Don’t waste time telling us how great you think your idea is and why, don’t get too detailed, just tell us the idea. Try to communicate it in as few words as possible and keep your language simple, show it to other people to get their feedback and edit, edit, edit. Clarity is of the utmost importance.”

Spark is now open for entries for 2017 and the deadline is 10 January 2017.

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Find out more and apply to Design Council Spark. 

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