Support for research is available – why not make use of it?
Who can resist those free samples offered as you wander around the supermarket, sizzling sausages, dollops of some new dessert product or other unnecessary confection. One of the great appeals is you get these samples for nothing, with the payback coming for the vendor only if you actually decide to purchase the product.
We all find it difficult to resist such a deal, someone offering you something that you didn’t earn or pay for but you still get to benefit from the transaction.
I was put in mind of supermarket freebees when discussing Irish small to medium enterprise uptake of research grants with staff from Enterprise Ireland and Teagasc, looking in particular at the food sector. These state bodies have a wide range of support services to help SMEs conduct research and increase innovation within their organisations.
However, some surprising figures emerged from the discussion. Only a quarter of companies here invest in research and innovation at a level comparable with best international practice. Another 50 per cent of companies invest a reasonable amount but below best practice. This means a quarter of companies don’t seem to be pursuing research and innovation opportunities at all.
There were other European Union figures that showed the food sector is particularly slow to invest in innovation compared to other areas. The sector overall invests less than one per cent of business expenditure in research and innovation while other sectors such as IT divert a quarter of business expenditure into research.
This is admittedly a simplistic juggling of a complex range of figures that track Berd (business expenditure in research and development), and a company’s apparent willingness to invest in research of any kind whether it is product, process or even marketing activity.
But it puts in mind those free samples or the buy one, get one free-type deals where someone is trying hard to get you to engage with their product. The enterprise system here has just such deals that try to tempt SMEs to engage with research and innovation as a way to grow a company, expand into new areas or increase exports.
One such programme is the Enterprise Ireland Innovation Voucher scheme, a grant worth €5,000 that can be used to buy research and innovation expertise at one of 10 Irish “knowledge providers”. These include universities and institutes of technology where there is expertise available in all the scientific and engineering disciplines from process engineering to microbiology.
Hundreds of these awards have been made to small companies looking to expand and there are regular open calls to attract new customers. One just ended last month but there are also 50/50 “fast track” options open all of the time (see innovationvoucher.ie).
If this seems beyond the reach of a company there are smaller grants available to help develop a new product or overcome a production glitch, and companies can build their own relationships with the third level sector, in the hopes of later attracting financial support for a joint project. All it takes to see if it is right for an SME is a phone call to the technology transfer office in the nearest university or institute.
The state bodies and the higher education sector want these connections with Irish business to work for a lot of reasons. Solving a process engineering problem for a company could become a real-world end-of -year project for a post-graduate student. Research that leads to a new way to diagnose disease could generate a valuable revenue stream for a university but also for the company that develops and exports the resultant medical device.
There is a long established correlation between investment in research and downstream turnover and exports for companies willing to engage with research and innovation. It seems remarkable that any company would want to ignore such an opportunity, particularly in these straightened times when it is difficult for firms to keep the show on the road let alone start dabbling in research with the university dons. But these objections sound weak when you have agencies in place waiting to help you tap into hard cash or get the extra support required to help a company innovate.
The free samples are there if you want a taste to see if it is something worth buying into, and Enterprise Ireland says that once an SME sees the benefits that can arise investment in research becomes a natural part of the economic process. If the first taste doesn’t work, there are always other offers just around the next aisle.