Building links between business and research
Innovation vouchers and partnership schemes are helping SMEs to success
Research shows firms which got RD&I support from Enterprise Ireland have 2.21 times the turnover, 2.59 times the exports and more than twice the number of full-time employees.
The Enterprise Ireland Innovation Vouchers and Innovation Partnership programmes have proven highly successful in promoting links between business and knowledge providers such as higher education institutions and other publicly funded research organisations.
The innovation voucher initiative is aimed particularly at small businesses and offers worth €5,000 are available to assist a company or companies to explore a business opportunity or problem with a knowledge provider. The innovation partnership programme helps companies reach the next level by supporting access to the latest skills and expertise from research institutes throughout Ireland.
Co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund under Ireland’s European Structural and Investment Funds programmes, the innovation partnership programme can provide up to 80 per cent of the cost of research work to develop new and improved products, processes or services, or generate new knowledge and knowhow.
“The innovation voucher programme was established in 2007 following a recommendation of the Small Business Forum report the previous year,” says programme manager Mike Dolan. “The primary objective is to build links between knowledge providers and small businesses and generate a shift in the approach to innovation. It enables small business take advantage of the skills, knowledge and expertise of universities, institutes of technology, Teagasc, IBM and other State-funded bodies.”
The application process is quick and straightforward, according to Dolan. “If an owner or manager of a small business wants to explore a problem or an issue, they can apply for an innovation voucher worth up to €5,000,” he says. “The application is done online and should take less than an hour. The details we look for are a description of the company, the problem it needs help with, the deliverables expected from the knowledge provider, and the benefits expected for the company. We evaluate the application and, if we think it is suitable, we award a voucher. They can then go ahead and work with any publicly funded knowledge provider on the island of Ireland.”
The innovation partnership programme is aimed at helping companies engage in research, development and innovation (RD&I) in order to improve performance. “There is a direct correlation between RD&I and performance,” says programme manager Lawrence Less. “We have carried out surveys which showed that companies that innovate have significantly greater export sales than those that don’t, and those who innovate in partnership with a research performing organisation perform better still.”
And the benefits of publicly funded supports are clear. Research has shown that companies which received RD&I support from Enterprise Ireland have 2.21 times the turnover, 2.59 times the exports and more than twice the number of full-time employees as those which haven’t.
Companies which received both RD&I support and collaboration support in the form of innovation partnership funding or innovation vouchers have even greater turnover (2.29 times), exports (2.80 times) compared with non-RD&I performing companies.
“If a company has a technical problem and doesn’t have the capacity or the capability to deal with it, they can work with a third-level institution or other research-performing organisation on it. The company works with the partner to identify the technical challenges, the practical solutions and a budget.”
Enterprise Ireland can support up to 80 per cent of the project cost subject to a general limit of €200,000. However, this can be exceeded in certain cases. “We evaluate projects on a case-by-case basis,” says Lee.
He points to the recent announcement by the Tyndall Institute and Irish Times Innovation Award winner Arralis as an example of a successful innovation partnership. The two have come together to develop a next-generation mm wave fabrication technology for use in applications such as autonomous vehicles, satellite communications, 5G and radar imaging.
“In this case the company had expertise in chip design but not in manufacturing and the research institute was able to provide that,” says Lee.
And it doesn’t have to involve a high-tech application. “It can work for more mature industries as well,” he adds. “McBride Fishing linked up with the Wisar technology gateway at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology to develop a wireless system to monitor the crab fishing process and keep track of crab pots at sea.”
The innovation vouchers programme has also been highly successful and a recent external evaluation found that for every €1 invested in the scheme by Enterprise Ireland, the net economic value add was 4.72 with an average company turnover increase of over €11. In addition, 82 per cent of companies surveyed said they would be willing to participate in an innovation voucher project in the future and 97 per cent would be willing to recommend the programme to other businesses.
“These findings indicate just how beneficial companies found the innovation vouchers and show a very positive reflection on company experiences of the programme,” says Dolan. “About 5,600 vouchers have been used successfully to date. The overall investment has been €27 million and about 3,500 companies have benefited. A company can apply for up to three vouchers to a total value of €15,000 but the third one must be co-funded by the company.”