Partnering up for innovation
Ulster University has played a leading role in the InterTradeIreland Fusion programme since its inception 17 years ago
Clare Hughes: “Universities like Ulster have so much to give. They have a very high-quality research pipeline and InterTradeIreland gives companies access to that pipeline.” Photograph: Rue Photography
The InterTradeIreland Fusion programme provides support to ambitious firms which want to engage in product- and process-development and innovation. Since its launch in 2001, the programme has supported more than 750 cross-border collaborations between small- and medium-sized companies and third-level institutions and knowledge centres.
Ulster University has been involved in more than 200 of those projects. “Ulster University is a very good supporter of the programme,” says InterTradeIreland operations manager Alan Morrow. “The university brings a wide variety of expertise to the projects.”
The programme provides support by helping to fund a high-calibre science, engineering or technology graduate to work in companies on innovation projects and by arranging partnerships between the firms involved and third-level institutions with relevant expertise.
The graduate is employed by the company and is based there throughout the 12 to 18-month project, with mentoring from the academic partner and an InterTradeIreland Fusion consultant.
Funding of up to €58,700 is available for 18-month projects, which are usually in the area of new product/service development. Twelve-month process-improvement projects are eligible for funding of up to €41,000.
“Companies come to InterTradeIreland because they want to do something new and different but they don’t have the technical expertise,” Morrow says. “We match them up with knowledge centres whose job it is to provide that expertise. Sometimes when the partners get together, the initial ideas might change – that’s part of the process. Once they agree on what they want to do, they apply to InterTradeIreland for funding.”
Two-thirds of the funding is for Republic of Ireland companies and one-third is for Northern Ireland, according to Peter Grant of the Helix Consultancy, which manages the programme on behalf of InterTradeIreland. “The companies from south of the border need to collaborate with Northern Ireland partners,” he says.
“Over the years, Ulster University has been by far the biggest participant from an academic point of view. The university has been very good and the academics there have been keen to get involved in Fusion. They have a very good spread of experience across different areas – including ICT, financial services, engineering and so on. Ulster University academics are also very good at encouraging their colleagues to get involved. Academic supervisors might engage academic support to bring in more expertise on a project and that person might in turn become a supervisor on future projects.”
CF Pharma in Kilkenny is one company which has benefitted from a collaboration with Ulster University under the Fusion programme. CF Pharma is a nutraceutical animal-feed-supplement manufacturer with a research and development team and state-of-the-art facilities to produce high-quality liquids, gels, pastes, powders and tablets for the animal healthcare industry.
Through the Fusion programme, CF Pharma benefitted from the expertise of former veterinary surgeon Pavel Cirneala, and Ulster University academic Dr Violetta Naughton. With a vast knowledge of European regulation on biocidal products, Cirneala founded and now leads the regulatory affairs department at CF Pharma. The collaboration between CF Pharma and Ulster University aided the development and commercialisation of two new animal healthcare products, which helped open up opportunities in the European market.
“Universities like Ulster have so much to give,” says CF Pharma managing director Clare Hughes. “They have a very high-quality research pipeline and InterTradeIreland gives companies access to that pipeline. Our project with Ulster was for a product to treat diarrhoea in calves. The project demonstrated the clinical outcomes for the product. As a result, we have been able to launch the product on the market in five different countries around the world.”
With results like these, it is little wonder the programme has proven so popular with companies on both sides of the border.
“When it started in 2001, they thought they might do 20 projects in three years,” says Peter Grant. “That was later doubled to 40 and we actually did 61 in the pilot between 2001 and 2004. That told us there was an appetite for the programme. The next programme target was 130 and we did 168. In the third phase, we did 265. The current phase will run for five years from 2016 and we have done 131 already.”