Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Developing engineering biology breakthrough ideas

Extended deadline: Thursday 2 September at 16:00. UKRI recognises that the original deadline for the Breakthrough Awards, set for Wednesday 28 July, was proving to be challenging for prospective applicants. This was set in line with the constraints that we were operating under. However, mindful of feedback received, we have been able to secure an extension to the deadline. The extended deadline is now 16:00 on Thursday 2 September.

Apply for funding to develop breakthrough ideas in engineering biology.

Your project must focus on one of the following themes from the National Engineering Biology Programme (NEBP):

  • bio-inspired design
  • novel materials
  • bioengineered cells and systems.

You must be of lecturer level or above and based at an eligible research organisation.

You do not need previous experience in engineering biology. You may be an early career researcher or from another discipline.

Your project’s full economic cost can be up to £125,000. We will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Projects can be up to 12 months. You must begin your project no later than 10 January 2022.

Who can apply

Standard eligibility criteria apply to this opportunity and applicants from eligible UK-based organisations are invited, in accordance with standard UKRI practice. See more details on eligibility.

Institutions and researchers normally eligible for UKRI funding include:

  • higher education institutions
  • strategically funded institutes
  • eligible independent research organisations (IROs)
  • public sector research establishments.

Applications from organisations or individuals that are not eligible will be rejected without reference to panel review.

New collaborations and partnerships are encouraged, including across disciplines and sectors. The involvement of private sector partners is welcome. However, businesses cannot be funded through this opportunity. The nature of the collaboration and the role of the industrial partner should be made clear in the case of support.

Partnerships with international research groups, where they add value to the project through access to key facilities or in-kind contributions are encouraged. Funding will only be provided to UK eligible organisations, but international researchers can be named as project partners as per the standard BBSRC grants guide.

Principal investigators and co-investigators must be at lecturer level (or equivalent) or above and meet the standard UKRI eligibility criteria.

Applications are encouraged from investigators who may not consider themselves to have a track record in engineering biology. This includes both early career researchers who have yet to establish a track record, as well as individuals from other disciplines that are looking to explore the potential impact of engineering biology across disciplines. It is anticipated that these investigators will provide evidence as to how their current expertise will bring a new dimension to engineering biology and where appropriate, how these individuals will work with others to ensure the appropriate expertise is sought to ensure the success of the application.

Development of exemplars in engineering biology beyond current known applications are welcomed. In addition to supporting individuals lacking track records in engineering biology, we also encourage people who are established in the field to explore new breakthrough ideas and new collaborations, bringing in other disciplines to explore novel aspects and catalyse innovative ideas.

Early career researchers are welcome to apply. Please see the associated frequently asked questions (PDF, 58KB) to understand the implications this may have on any new investigator or equivalent status for future applications.

For this opportunity specifically, an individual may apply only once as a principal investigator and may appear as a co-investigator on up to two further applications. In addition, there is a limit of two co-investigators per application and it must be clear from the application what contribution these co-investigators will make to the success of the application.

Institutions are encouraged to rigorously consider and prioritise applications submitted to this funding opportunity.

For any queries about eligibility, please contact before submitting your application.

What we're looking for

Engineering biology is the process of taking synthetic biology concepts and translating them into real-world solutions, for example:

  • the design and fabrication of biological components and systems
  • using engineering technologies and principles
  • from modifications to natural systems through to artificial biology.

Consequently, engineering biology encompasses the entire innovation ecosystem, from breakthrough synthetic biology research to translation and application.

Engineering biology has the potential to offer solutions to a range of global societal challenges. This opportunity will create a pipeline for the development of high-risk, high-reward ideas and will exploit engineering biology approaches to generate impact across a range of sectors.

We strongly encourage applicants from disciplines and communities seeking to drive cutting-edge fundamental engineering biology ideas and opportunities that can pull-through into impacts in key sectors (for example clinical, manufacturing, environmental).

This opportunity aims to:

  • seed the development of novel and high-risk ideas in engineering biology that will enhance the current potential impact of engineering biology in the UK
  • engage with new research communities and develop early exemplars in engineering biology, beyond current known applications.


Through community consultation, the vision for a NEBP has been developed around seven core thematic challenges, see the engineering biology overview supporting documentation (PDF, 104KB).

This opportunity invites the development of novel and high-risk ideas that will support the discovery-inspired themes:

  • bio-inspired design
  • novel materials
  • bioengineered cells and systems.

Further details of these three themes can be found below. However, these descriptions are not exhaustive, and all ideas that fit these themes are encouraged.

The bio-inspired design theme

The bio-inspired design theme aims to build on the fundamental potential of biology. In this theme we anticipate that engineering biology will be exploited to utilise and enhance the properties of nature for biotechnological solutions, such as the sensitivity of receptors in a dog’s nose and broader sentinel organisms, navigation due to magnetoreception in a bird’s brain, or the data storage and computing capability of nucleic acids and cells.

The novel materials theme

The novel materials theme aims to develop new materials, products and production processes. It is anticipated that engineering biology can be used to create more sustainable production processes or alternative production solutions, and develop new:

  • materials
  • non-natural materials
  • integrated materials
  • smart/functional materials.

The bioengineered cells and systems

The bioengineered cells and systems theme aims to develop novel approaches and technologies that allow us to construct ‘de novo’ or modify existing cell and biological systems efficiently and effectively. We anticipate that engineering biology will be applied to:

  • innovation in precision genome engineering technologies
  • meet challenges at different biological scales (for example synthetic organelles, functionally-modified cells, hybrid networks such as brain-computer interfaces)
  • further the development and control of minimal/protocells, synthetic microbial communities and artificial life.

Recognising that these themes do not have hard boundaries, novel ideas that cut across the three themes are also encouraged. In a similar fashion, novel ideas with overlaps toward the application-inspired themes (for example towards challenges in food systems, environmental solutions, healthcare and clean growth) or with overlaps with cross-cutting tools and technologies (for example rational design, sensors, artificial intelligence) will also be accepted. Further details of the application-inspired themes and cross-cutting tools and technologies can be found in the engineering biology overview supporting documentation (PDF, 104KB).

Applications do not need to demonstrate preliminary or pre-existing data in support of the idea. However, ideas building on preliminary information and existing research are welcome, and it should be clear in the application how the proposed idea is novel and high risk.

New collaborations and partnerships are strongly encouraged, including across disciplines and sectors, and internationally. While this project will not support funding business and international partners, collaborations are encouraged where there is clear benefit to be gained and potential in-kind contributions can be offered by the external partner.

After completion of these 12-month awards, UKRI partners will explore further opportunities to support the development of breakthrough ideas in engineering biology.

Opportunity scope

Proposals in the following areas will not be accepted:

  • proposals that do not fit the scope of this opportunity
  • projects with an exclusive focus on purchase of equipment
  • resubmissions of previously unsuccessful proposals.

Please contact us well in advance of the deadline if you are unsure whether your application fits within the scope of the opportunity.

This opportunity will follow the standard guidelines for research grant applications for BBSRC as described in the grants guide.

How to apply

You must apply using the Joint Electronic Submission system (Je-S) before 16:00 on 2 September 2021.

When applying select:

  • council: BBSRC
  • document type: standard proposal
  • scheme: Rapid Response
  • call/type/mode: RAPID RESPONSE
  • title of project to be prefixed ‘21ENGBIO’

See the Je-S handbook for advice on completing applications to BBSRC.

Please read the full BBSRC guidance on research grants before applying.

Your host organisation’s administration is required to complete the submission process. Applicants should allow sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process between submitting your proposal to them and the closing date.

UKRI partners must receive your full proposal application by 16:00 on  2 September 2021. Late applications will not be accepted.

As well as the Je-S application form, the following documents must be submitted:

  • proposal cover letter (one A4 side)
  • title of project to be prefixed ‘21ENGBIO’
  • case for support (up to four A4 sides)
  • justification of resources (one A4 side)
  • capability to deliver (one A4 side)
  • host institution letter of support
  • project partner letter of support, if relevant.

You should attach your documents as PDFs to avoid errors. They should be completed in single spaced Arial 11 font or similar sized sans serif typeface.

For detailed guidance on how to prepare each of these attachments, please carefully follow the associated guidance documents and downloads.

Please note that we are unable to accept late submissions.

How we will assess your application

Assessment process

Applications that fit the remit of the opportunity will be assessed through a single stage, fast-track panel assessment process, enabling the high-risk exploratory ideas to be rapidly tested or challenged.

The streamlined nature of the assessment will use a multidisciplinary panel with appropriate expertise across all involved UKRI partner remits (BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC, NERC), including:

  • healthcare
  • environmental solutions
  • biosciences
  • computational sciences
  • engineering.

UKRI reserve the right to modify the assessment process in response to demand.

Applications will be fully assessed by the expert panel. Applications will not be sent to reviewers and therefore applicants will not receive reviewer comments; there will be no principal investigator rebuttal stage.

The panel will assess the applications against the criteria for assessment and provide the funders with a recommended rank-ordered list of applications.

Applicants should ensure that sufficient details of their proposed project, approaches and methods are provided within the case for support to enable the application to be assessed by panel members with relevant, but not necessarily specialist, expertise.

Subject to demand on the competition, feedback will be generated by the assessment panel and provided to all applicants within three months of being notified of the panel’s decision.

Assessment criteria

UKRI staff will assess whether applications are within scope of the opportunity. Only those proposals falling within the scope, having submitted the appropriate documentation, will be sent for assessment by the panel. Due to the nature and timescales of this scheme, there will be no external peer review and no opportunity to respond to review comments.

The assessment of applications will reflect the scope of the fund and applications will be assessed against the following criteria:

  • scientific quality
  • strategic relevance to the national research portfolio
  • fit to the scope of the opportunity
  • capability to deliver.

Full assessment criteria can be found in the accompanying document (PDF, 21KB).

Subject to the demand and volume of applications received across the three themes, the office reserves the right to conduct portfolio management to ensure a balance of projects are funded through this opportunity.

Contact details

For enquiries, please email:

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