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NC3Rs | 20 Years: Pioneering Better Science

10 years of CRACKing IT

"CRACK IT 10 - Ten years of innovation" logo

Learn how we will be marking 10 years of CRACK IT throughout 2021.

2011 was an exciting year for the life sciences with many landmark discoveries. Honeybees were discovered to exhibit pessimism, a population of senescent cells were found offering new opportunities for ageing research and understanding longevity, and the US Institute of Medicine formally declared chimpanzees unnecessary for hepatitis C drug development. It also represents a significant landmark for the NC3Rs as 10 years ago this year we launched the CRACK IT Challenges open innovation funding competition – a new and unique approach to driving disruptive innovation in the 3Rs.

In this blog post, the CRACK IT team highlight the achievements of CRACK IT over the last decade and the exciting schedule of events we have planned to celebrate this. 

Bioscience innovation in the late nineties and early noughties was very different to what we see today. A closed and non-collaborative landscape forced organisations to innovate from within, affecting productivity and contributing to the spiralling costs of product development across the life sciences and the high rate of drug failures witnessed within the pharmaceutical industry. Other factors, amongst them the low predictivity of preclinical animal models further contributed to these issues and forced companies to re-evaluate their research and development strategies and adopt more open methods of working.

The concept of ‘open innovation’, a paradigm where companies use external ideas as well as internal ones to develop and advance their technologies, was first introduced in 2003. Various approaches to open innovation have been established but none focused on the unique challenges and significant opportunities for innovation presented by the use of animals in the bioscience sector. In 2011 we launched CRACK IT Challenges to connect big business, academia and small companies across sectors in delivering ready-to-use products and services to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals, speed up product development and reduce R&D costs.

Maximising the commercial, scientific and animal welfare benefits of 3Rs technologies requires them to cross the 3Rs ‘valley of death’ - the gap between 3Rs technology development and its uptake. Supporting this translation is central to the NC3Rs mission and fundamental to CRACK IT Challenges which is why we created a funding model to ensure end products are fit-for-purpose and address the specific requirements of the end-user. We implemented this within CRACK IT through the involvement of Challenge Sponsors that outline the needs of the end-user and then collaborate closely with the Challenge winners providing in-kind support including expert input as well as tools, data and in-house testing.

To read more about the CRACK IT programme, visit our Innovation Platform site.

The top 10 at 10 

Established as a novel challenge-led, milestone-driven funding competition, CRACK IT Challenges represented a significant departure from the more familiar, tried and tested grant funding schemes we already offered at the time. It was a risk given the resources available to us, but one which has driven preclinical innovation and fostered significant achievements, ten of which we highlight below: 

  1. We have run 39 Challenges supporting the needs of the pharmaceutical, chemical, consumer product, petrochemical and agribusiness sectors. These Challenges push the boundaries of what is currently possible scientifically and technologically and are intended to be disruptive in addressing animal use where the models do not translate, have significant welfare issues or require large numbers. 

  2. We have worked with 33 global companies, (including GSK, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Unilever, Shell and Syngenta), academic institutions, government departments and charities as Sponsors that set and help deliver innovation challenges. Of these organisations, 15 have been involved in more than one CRACK IT Challenge.

  3. Through CRACK IT we have leveraged high value in-kind contributions from these organisations to support product development in addition to the resource available from the NC3Rs. The provision of in-kind contributions is pivotal to the success of the Challenges, providing a unique opportunity for academics and SMEs to work with new partners and access resources that they would not otherwise be able to. These include data, compounds, expertise and equipment.

  4. We have committed £26.57M for CRACK IT Challenges, including £1.1M secured from external sources including research funders (Innovate UK, MRC, EPSRC), research-funding charities (Alzheimer’s Research UK, Versus Arthritis), companies (Unilever) and government departments (DEFRA, Dstl).

  5. SMEs are often critical to translating technologies developed through CRACK IT from first generation prototypes to viable products ready to be deployed across the bioscience sector to achieve their 3Rs impact. CRACK IT provides a mechanism which encourages SMEs to engage in 3Rs research challenges and accelerate the route to market for new 3Rs tools and technologies, supporting the economic growth of small businesses operating in the life science sector. We have supported the formation or growth of more than 70 SMEs across the UK and Europe.

  6. We have supported the participation of scientists from academia and SMEs from nine countries across Europe in driving advances in 3Rs innovation.

  7. From the 22 Challenges that have completed 12 new products and services for industrial and academic end-users that are better, cheaper or quicker than existing approaches have been delivered. These include miniature wireless devices for recording neural activity in mice, novel human-relevant microphysiological systems and organ on-a-chip platforms for kidney, cardiac and neuronal toxicity assessment and AI and in silico modelling platforms for infection, welfare monitoring and toxicology studies. A further six products are being prepared for market.

  8. We have introduced the CRACK IT Advisory Panel and Business Growth Scheme to support technologies and products delivered through Challenges in bridging the 3Rs ‘valley of death’ and maximising their uptake by the biosciences community.

  9. CRACK IT has been recognised as a success story of Innovate UKs Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI). Running CRACK IT using the SBRI process enables us to fund collaborations across multiple sectors and technology areas we would not reach with traditional grant funding.

  10. The value of CRACK IT has been recognized as a model for innovation by others. In 2019 the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMW) announced their own innovation platform called Create2Solve. Established under their More Knowledge with Fewer Animals programme, the scheme was modelled entirely on CRACK IT and launched with two industry sponsored Challenges to improve in vitro dosing and development of in vitro mini brains to model neurological disorders.


You can find out more about several of the achievements described above and many more in the timeline that we have put together to showcase the critical stages in CRACK IT Challenges’ evolution over the last decade as well as the key milestones and impacts.

A year of celebrations 

We couldn’t let this milestone pass without some fanfare and so have planned a year of celebrations to share CRACK IT’s achievements and recognise the brilliant and dedicated research teams and organisations we’ve worked with over the last decade. 

Each month during 2021 we’ll showcase different aspects of the programme, focusing on the 3Rs products that have been developed, their application and the scientific, business and animal welfare benefits they deliver.   

Details of all our 10 years of CRACK IT activities will be included in our monthly newsletter, so make sure you’re signed up if you don’t want to miss out. 


Recordings of all our webinars are now available to watch online.

Social Media

Make sure you're following the CRACK IT twitter account (@CRACK_IT) where we'll be showcasing one of the brilliant 3Rs products created as a result of the CRACK IT Challenges competition and the resulting collaborations.