Spark: The Technology Innovation Marketplace

Rob Whitehead, category lead for Technology Products and Services at the Crown Commercial Service, discusses how Spark will work, how it has been designed, as well as its desired outcomes

For many years, there has been a strange disconnect which has made it difficult for organisations in the public sector to bring on board technologies which are truly cutting edge.

Let’s be clear - that’s not because innovation was a dirty word in the public sector. Far from it: the UK government has been very active in funding product development which makes the UK a world leader when it comes to emerging technologies.

But what we have not been so good at is providing a route to market for those customers within the public sector who wanted to access such technology once the products were developed.

Spark: The Technology Innovation Marketplace was launched in April to address exactly this issue - identified through conversations we, Crown Commercial Service (CCS), held with our stakeholders. CCS helps organisations across the entire public sector get the best deals on the goods and services they need to run their organisations and we have been at the heart of Spark’s development.

We want our customers to have access to the latest products and services, and for innovative tech companies to work with the government and the wider public sector. Spark does all of this as part of a suite of wider government initiatives to bring cutting edge technology into the public sector: it compliments the GDS government technology innovation strategy, the GovTech Catalyst challenge and other similar projects.

It was designed to encourage new, but proven technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI); wearable tech; and the internet of things - where everyday objects can send and receive data.
Spark will enable true innovators, who have developed products through catalysts or catapults, to commercially exploit them by opening them up the entire public sector - a market worth approximately £14 billion. Spark provides a flexible yet compliant route to market which adapts and scales as capabilities change.

So how does it work?
First of all, it’s a Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) which allows it to remain continually open to new suppliers.

This has several advantages, including: suppliers can apply to be part of the marketplace at any time; an unlimited number of suppliers can join; and far less work is required up front by suppliers to join a DPS than would be the case with a framework agreement as suppliers only need answer selection questions.

The DPS has an inbuilt matrix to assist customers and suppliers match capabilities to needs, and all this is married to a proactive programme of customer and supplier support to make using it as straightforward as possible.

Totally market-led, Spark developed from work within CCS’s Technology Products and Services category, and has been designed with customers and suppliers in mind. By speaking with customers we identified a need for a more open, flexible approach to our emerging technology suppliers. They told us they wanted to trial technologies in a small, agile manner with a compliant route to market once they were ready to scale. Once they get easier access to the public sector market, successful Spark suppliers may then ‘graduate’ on to other frameworks. Ultimately, citizens benefit through the step changes in service provision that such technologies can deliver.

But suppliers won’t be able to sell just any new tech product or service. The core ‘backbone’ of the DPS will be a filter system so customers can search for products within defined fields that have been developed in partnership with customer input.

The emerging technologies we’ve selected are those predicted to have the largest impact over the next five years: the internet of things; AI and automation; simulated and enhanced environments; engineering and materials science; data; wearables; transport, and security. There are further sub-categories within each field and products outside these cannot be offered within the DPS.

In order to gain a place suppliers also need to provide a contract example, corroborated by a customer, to demonstrate their capabilities and show how their products meet our definition of innovation by detailing its novelty, usefulness for the customer, and impact. The customer must also have access to any relevant pre-existing intellectual property, either through ownership or licencing.

As with all CCS commercial agreements, customers remain in control throughout the process. We recommend pre-market engagement with all potential suppliers - asking how they can solve their problem and allowing them to innovate.

Spark’s simple DPS sign-up and buying features encourage public sector customers to use new suppliers and adopt their innovations. The sign up process is quick and easy for customers. They need only to register as a buyer by completing their contact details, confirming acceptance of the terms and conditions and clicking ‘register’. By completing this they are submitting an access request to CCS for approval. This means that from the homepage customers can reach the page where they apply their filters to shortlist suppliers for their further competition in no more than four steps. That’s an innovation.

We’re confident customers will want to use it, not just because it is so easy to use, but because we intend to attract the best new technology innovators through an open and supplier-friendly agreement. Spark will remove the barriers which have prevented the true public sector exploitation of innovation, by taking a more flexible, open approach than may have been the case with traditional frameworks.

For example, the supplier application process for Spark is very simple and quick; suppliers should not need a bid writer to apply for them.

If it works as we hope, we’ll see a £20 million spend in the first year with 70 per cent of that spend being with SMEs. We should also see the seven suppliers we had at launch growing to 100.

But we see Spark as just a starting point - our first step on a greater journey which will  enable CCS to onboard innovative technologies for our customers at speed, and improve their approach to exploiting new technology.

Spark is the first time we have targeted an emerging market and so also the first use of a DPS for this market. Previously, DPSs have been used for established supplier markets only.
The approach we are taking is an innovation in itself. CCS will learn from the process, good and bad, and we plan to iterate and improve the agreement.

Further Information: 

https://www.crowncommercial.gov.uk/agreements/RM6094