The SME dimension: SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson
‘The SME wins by getting access to world class research capability and global markets while Ireland wins as well in terms of economic and other gains’
‘The projects can often lead to people from SMEs meeting technical and scientific counterparts in multinationals,’ says Prof Mark Ferguson. Photograph: Eric Luke
When large-scale commercial research projects are discussed there is a natural tendency to consider them to be the preserve of large multinational corporations. This is far from the case, however, and SMEs actually outnumber multinationals when it comes to collaborative research projects with Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) supported researchers.
“At present, there are just under 400 SMEs working with SFI funded researchers while around 250 to 300 multinational companies are involved in about 500 projects,” says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson. “The SMEs are mainly involved in one-to-one projects while multinationals can be involved in several at one time. The numbers are quite balanced really.”
The regional balance is also good, according to Ferguson. “We did a mapping exercise to look at the regional distribution of the collaborations. There are projects with SMEs and SFI research teams happening in every region of the country from Donegal to Cork and not just in the main towns and cities. SMEs throughout the country are seeking out the best researchers in the universities and institutes of technology regardless of location. Geography is clearly not a barrier.”
SMEs are also strongly represented in collaborations with SFI’s network of research centres. The centres are collaborations between academia and industry, which bring together the best researchers across Ireland to work on large-scale strategic research programmes.
“There are 12 of these at present and this will soon grow to 16,” says Ferguson. “They are focused on areas of strategic importance to Ireland including pharmaceutical manufacturing, data analytics, medical devices, nanotechnology, marine and renewable energy, food, geosciences, and software. To date the centres have signed collaborative research agreements with over 300 industry partners representing cumulative company commitments of more than €120 million. The split is about 50/50 between SMEs and multinational firms.”
There are a number of advantages to SMEs who participate in collaborative projects with SFI supported researchers and research centres. “In the first instance, they get the opportunity to work with some of the best researchers in the world on questions that are important to their company – this can involve the development of new products, improvements to processes and so on.”
In addition, the SFI research centres can provide a platform for SMEs to engage in EU Horizon 2020 funded projects. “What’s really interesting is the very significant engagement by the research centres with Horizon 2020 funding. They have been very successful and have secured more than €100 million in funding to date and there has been very strong SME participation in that. They get more than just collaboration on industrial research from the research centres. They get information and knowledge on how to get EU funding as well. As part of their core infrastructure the research centres have EU grant managers who know their way around the system. This is an added advantage for the SMEs who get to share in this knowledge.”
Another advantage is the access to multinationals such collaborations can offer. “The projects can often lead to people from SMEs meeting technical and scientific counterparts in multinationals,” says Ferguson. “These multinationals can be their customers already but very often the SME won’t have a clue who the right individual is in the company to talk to if they want to work on a project together. The introductions to those people can be very important. Also, the multinationals are interested in SMEs and the collaboration might result in them putting work their way or even acquiring technology from them.”
He points to Cork software company Treemetrics as an example of an Irish SME that is making a global impact as a result of successful research. “The company is collaborating with the Insight Centre for Data Analytics and has won a €1.2 million contract from the European Space Agency (ESA). They are involved in the internet of trees. They are using software and analytics to manage forestry. They combine imaging and big data technology with ESA satellites to monitor forests. They can measure the growth of trees and look at lots of stuff at a minute scale. There are 4 billion hectares under trees worldwide and Ireland can be world leader in forestry management. Treematics could turn out to be can be the Uber of forestry management.”
This indicates what is possible for SMEs that engage with the research system, according to Ferguson. “This is an example of what can happen when you put together cutting edge researchers with innovative SMEs to gain access to world markets. It’s a win, win, win for everyone. The SME wins by getting access to world class research capability and global markets while Ireland wins as well in terms of economic and other gains. There are a lot of wins there for everyone when we get it right.”