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Private equity flooded the travel industry during the pandemic, but many startups looked to the government’s Innovate UK arm, which continues to put millions of pounds on the table.

The UK government has been dishing out millions of pounds to startups during the pandemic through a special agency called Innovate UK. The catch is that the startups need to fit into its “build back better” ethos to accelerate the nation’s recovery, with some sustainability thrown in for good measure.

There’s an eclectic mix of travel startups that have been competing for grants side-by-side with other sectors, mostly health technology firms, in different funding competitions.

Innovate UK, part of UK Research & Innovation, has been running since 2007, and to date has invested $3.5 billion in businesses, with match funding from the private sector taking the total value of projects to $6 billion. It claims to have helped 8,500 organisations create 70,000 jobs.

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Travel startups emerging from the pandemic cover a range of bases, from contactless valet parking and baggage handling, to electric boats and rail loyalty schemes. Here’s a selection of them…


Rail aggregator Byway ticks the right boxes as it wants to promote sustainable, flight-free holidays, with part of its mission to grow corporate travel bookings. It received $140,000 from Innovate UK’s $276 million Sustainable Innovation Fund that was set up in June 2020 to help startups keep their dreams alive.

Cat Jones, CEO of Byway. Picture: Byway

Cat Jones, CEO of Byway. Picture: Byway

Byway has since received $240,000 from Innovate UK’s “Smart Grants” scheme — an allocation of $35 million set aside for the “best game-changing and commercially viable innovative or disruptive ideas.” On July 6, it said it had closed more than $1.6 million in funding, from Innovate UK and angel investors, including Rod Cuthbert, founder and CEO of Viator and Rome2Rio.


Innovate UK teamed up with the Department for Transport for a niche funding round called “First of a Kind,” with $12.4 million available to support rail innovation projects. The competition’s focus was how to make railways “cleaner, greener and more passenger-friendly.” A project called Rail+Club, developed by UrbanThings, took home a grant of $548,000. Rail+Club is a connected loyalty platform designed to encourage customers back on to trains. Its technology tracks passenger engagement across the rail network, and enables a rewards and incentives program to enhance the experience and encourage the population back on to trains.


Innvoate UK also ran a scheme with Eureka GlobalStars Singapore. UK registered businesses could apply for a share of up to $1.4 million, as long as they collaborated with Singapore and other Eureka participating members. Abacas (Autonomous Baggage Automation for Changi Airport Stakeholders) won $482,000 for its self-driving vehicles.

Abacas is a partnership between Coventry-based RDM, Changi Airports Group and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. It said that with worldwide air passenger numbers estimated to double in the next 18 years, airports face the challenge of using existing buildings and infrastructure more efficiently to handle the increase, and the subsequent increased volumes of baggage. Its new vehicles would enable safer and more efficient baggage handling.

Baggage handlers also work in harsh conditions, from a health and safety perspective, it added, as they compete for space with fuellers, in-flight catering vehicles, tugs, engineering vehicles and aircraft.

Gigged AI

Gigged.AI founders Rich Wilson and Craig Short. Picture: Gigged.AI

Gigged.AI founders Rich Wilson and Craig Short. Picture: Gigged.AI

The pandemic led to a wave of startups tackling remote work and global mobility, but digital sourcing platform Gigged AI aims to help companies hire top talent faster. It secured $131,000 from the Sustainable Innovation Fund, and is developing algorithms to minimise the geographical bias to match relevant on-demand talent to specific work. It claims it can reduce the time to onboard employees by six weeks.

Limitless Virtual Tours

Limitless Virtual Tours won $64,000 in the “Business-led innovation in response to global disruption” funding competition. Limitless Travel is an agency that specializes in holidays for people with mobility restrictions and disabilities, and launched virtual tours for them during the lockdown. It said these tours also provide alternative income for tour guides in destinations impacted by travel restrictions. “From the competition award, we can start rapidly with feasibility discussions with tours, visitor attractions, potential consumers and trialling unattended test tours directly with selected guides,” it said.


Innovate UK handed $136,000 to ParkIT, a division of Holiday Extras, to develop and commercialize contactless valet parking at airports. With Covid-19 affecting airports, the startup said recovery of the airport industry will be built on passenger confidence. Traditionally valet parking involves a high level of contact between the operation and the passenger, but ParkIT has begun a six-month industrial-research project to remove the need for human interaction. “International airports are similarly reliant on parking revenues and this project represents an opportunity for ParkIT (and the UK) to lead the way in addressing this problem,” it said.

Voyager Marine

Voyager Marine won $140,000 to help it continue developing fully electric boats. The carbon-free vessels can operate for up to 14 hours a day without the need to plug in to recharge, and it will initially use them on a busy commuter route between Cornwall and Plymouth. “The design will focus on a clean hydrodynamically efficient hull form to maximise the use of the stored energy available, be of a design and construction that will allow it to be able to effectively operate in a congested maritime environment, with strong tidal conditions, rough seas and challenging berthing locations,” it said in its proposal.

What’s Next?

Hundreds of startups have benefited from Innovate UK, and the funding tap is still turned on thanks to another “Smart Grant” round totaling $35 million, for “game-changing and commercially viable research and development innovation that can significantly impact the UK economy.” Submissions are open until August 25.

Meanwhile, Innovate UK has appointed a new CEO, Indro Mukerjee, who will move the agency from a grant funding body to an agency focused on driving economic growth by working with companies to enable and support innovation. There’s also more focus on unleashing private sector investment into research and development.

The UK government came under fire for its handling of coronavirus in the early stages of the crisis, and more recently for failing to support the travel industry. But looking further ahead, few could argue it’s not supporting a new generation of travel entrepreneurs.

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Tags: airports, changi airport, climate change, coronavirus, funding, loyalty, rail travel, rome2rio, singapore, sustainability, uk, UK government, viator, virtual reality

Photo credit: Hundreds of startups have benefited from Innovate UK. Jaanus Jagomagi / Unsplash

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