Connecting the dots

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

INTERTRADEIRELAND:THE CREATION of an interconnected innovation web comprising all of the various actors, including third-level institutions, consumers, scientists, government agencies, entrepreneurs, financiers and technologists, where the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts, is the vision of InterTradeIreland.

“A more open model of innovation is needed to help firms develop concepts and take them to market,” says InterTradeIreland strategy and policy director, Aidan Gough.

“It involves companies drawing on third-level institutions for intellectual property and taking on the financial resources of venture capitalists and the skills of other companies, consultants, suppliers and customers to create an ‘innovation ecosystem’. A well-connected, all-island innovation system that puts enterprise at its centre will ensure creative ideas are nurtured quickly and effectively to successful commercialisation.”

The overall aim is to have the island of Ireland recognised internationally as a centre of innovation excellence.

“To achieve this we have to create an island-wide innovation ecosystem,” says Gough. “This will be a highly-connected, open system of innovation with enterprise at the centre. It will allow businesses within it to connect to any resource they might need.”

Gough explains that the aim is innovative in itself. “Open innovation is often seen as the preserve of larger firms with access to corporate venture capital that can source ideas outside the firm on a global scale,” he says. “However, SMEs can also adopt open innovation strategies through involvement in innovation partnerships and networks.”

An open innovation system working across Ireland can offer SMEs the potential to externally source and connect with a wider variety of relevant expertise than that currently available as well as opening up opportunities on the international stage.

And there is strong interest in this concept among Irish SMEs, according to the results of InterTradeIreland’s latest Business Monitor survey, carried out earlier this year.

The survey showed that 71 per cent of companies plan to undertake new innovative activity over the next 12 months. Companies are also realising the importance of marketing their goods and services in an innovative way already, with 25 per cent using social media to promote their business.

On the other hand, some companies are not confident they have the skills in their organisation to drive innovation, with only 22 per cent of them rating their creative or entrepreneurial skills as very strong.

“There are some very encouraging signs from the survey,” says Gough. “These come from businesses doing the right things such as embracing innovation and reducing costs to improve competitiveness.”

In developing this innovation ecosystem, InterTradeIreland’s focus is on what Gough calls the three Cs: create, connect and commercialise. Among the most important of the programmes the agency offers in this regard is Fusion, which fosters partnerships between business, academia and graduates.

“Through our Fusion programme, support packages worth up to €33,150 are available to companies to undertake a 12-month innovation project,” says Gough.

A participating company is partnered with a third-level institution that has the specialist expertise it needs, along with a high-calibre science, engineering or technology graduate. The graduate is employed by the company and based there throughout the project, with mentoring from the academic partner and an InterTradeIreland Fusion consultant.

The results of the programme are impressive. On average, each company taking part benefits from more than €1.15 million worth of sales or efficiency savings in the three years following the project.

One company that has benefited from the programme is Dublin based X-Bolt Orthopaedics which develops innovative orthopaedic devices to facilitate surgery. Through the Fusion programme, X-Bolt was paired with Queen’s University Belfast and a Fusion graduate to work on design optimisation, mechanical testing and the preparation of technical information for clinical trials and regulatory approval.

“The Fusion programme was excellent for us and InterTradeIreland were very proactive all the way through,” says X-Bolt founder Dr Brian Thornes. “We won a regional prize in the 2008 Seedcorn Competition and that put us in their crosshairs. After that, we got a call to ask if we would be interested in the Fusion programme and we were. Ross McDonald, the graduate the placed with us, has helped in the development of our latest product and is still with us. We had no core skills in the company and the Fusion programme gave us that, as well as the assistance of Queen’s University.”

InterTradeIrelands company-to-company Innova Programme helps firms to form strategic partnerships with companies that offer complementary expertise in the opposite jurisdiction. Funding worth up to €285,000 per project can be claimed to accelerate new product, process or service development. As well as financial support, companies benefit from pooling their expertise and resources with another firm to take their innovations to market faster than if they were working alone.

One company to benefit from the Innova programme is Impedans, which specialises in the delivery of high-performance and high-resolution plasma diagnostics solutions to customers in research and industry. Impedans’ products represent the next generation in plasma diagnostics technology – with applications for plasma process research and development, process monitoring and control and manufacturing tool development in the semiconductor, surface coating, flat panel, thin film and solar sectors.

Through InterTradeIreland’s Innova programme, the company partnered with Intelesens in Belfast to develop an “electronic nose sensor” to detect trace quantities of compounds or particles in the plasma state of a gaseous sample.

“Plasma is gas with an electric current running through it,” says Impedans founder Mike Hopkins. “This ionises the gas and when you the free electrons recombine with atoms light is emitted and you can tell what gases are present by the light that is emitted. The Innova programme allowed us to work with Intelesens on a medical device to test breath samples. Certain chemicals will be present in the breath of a diabetic patient, for example, and these can provide an indication of their health status. The patent is already in place following a two-year project.”

He found the Innova programme very useful. “Ireland is a very small island and you don’t meet many other companies doing what we do,” he says. “The Innova programme was very useful as it introduced us to Intelesens and it was great to meet a partner with a similar interest to ourselves.”

A recent addition to InterTradeIreland’s portfolio of support for open innovation is the new Innovation Challenge programme, which aims to transform business prospects in just nine months through mentoring support that will put businesses on an innovation footing, teaching them how to turn ideas into sales with less time money and risk.

“These are just some of the programmes through which we are supporting the creation of the island-wide innovation ecosystem,” says Gough. Others focus on such areas as research and development, networking and equity advisory services such as the All-Island Seedcorn business competition, the Halo Business Angel Network.

“It’s all about connectedness,” he says. “That’s what we are aiming to foster through all of these programmes – connectedness with other companies, research or finance, or with all three to facilitate and promote innovation and create an all-island innovation ecosystem.”