Two-thirds of research and development (R&D) activities in Ireland are carried out by foreign multinationals, but there are some small and medium companies that are achieving innovation.
A couple of ways SMEs can enable themselves to carry out R&D is through funding and grants as well as collaborations with Irish universities and institutes. One avenue to this is through Enterprise Ireland’s Technology Gateway Network in partnership with Institutes of Technology. The programme provides fast access to expertise and solutions for businesses through the use of innovation vouchers.
John Smee progressed his family business, Kilkenny Cooling Systems, through the use of these vouchers.
"A competitor of ours was advertising an imported cooling system as being very energy efficient. I knew that it wasn't really but I needed some sort of independent analysis of it. I made contact with Nimbus at Cork IT (Ireland's largest research centre devoted to embedded electronic systems) to discuss the possibility of doing some work on that project and they suggested the Gateway vouchers."
A standard innovation voucher pays for €5,000 worth of work in an institute that the business nominates.
Nimbus made suggestions for tweaks to Smee’s product while they were carrying out the study and the changes made turned out to have a very good energy saving and a better design for Smee’s product.
“The process is straightforward. Getting some of the supports can be a little bit onerous but the vouchers are very straightforward and targeted. You have a specific requirement and they meet with it. The resulting product has been very successful with exports to the UK and it’s outselling our standard system.
“I think the system gets very good value for money for the taxpayer. The Government obviously want to support research and exporting companies and I think it’s a very good way of killing two birds with one stone.”
Gerald Fitzgibbons of Magnetar Medical also used an innovation voucher from Enterprise Ireland to help design his product; a battery powered patch that can quickly deliver drugs across the skin.
“We applied to Enterprise Ireland for a competitive start fund, with that funding we built a prototype and are testing it in a lab at the moment. We got €50,000 and they take 10 per cent of the company for that, that’s standard.
“We also got two more innovation vouchers; they helped with elements of the design. We got one for UCC which is testing our product in the lab at the moment.”
He explains why the innovation voucher works so well: “It’s a great scheme for someone like me, a micro SME. We’ve gotten to the stage where we can use the information to raise venture capital because we have an independently run study that shows our product does x,y and z. We’re comparing it to the technology that is currently available, which is very advanced, but we’ve actually improved on it.”
Consulting Partner and Head of BDO’s Brexit Taskforce, Derry Gray, says that small, relatively new firms and some “start-agains” are getting savvy by going to their local university for help with R&D.
“A very small company, without collaboration, is not really going to be able to do it on their own,” he says.
He adds that Ireland may be able to capitalise on Brexit in this area.
He says that while Irish universities usually play second fiddle when it comes to being part of consortia that apply for research funding, they may be able to take the lead from British universities into the future.
“British universities are very aware that there is €6 or 8 billion (of EU research funding) in play at the moment that they may not be able to claim once Brexit happens. They’re still claiming this year but they know there may be money in 2018/2019 which they may not be able to get.”
He says Irish universities could potentially lead certain R&D projects, in partnership with British universities, into the future.