Over the past 20 years, more than 1,000 Irish companies have benefited from Enterprise Ireland’s Innovation Partnership Programme. The programme helps companies to access the latest skills and expertise from research institutes throughout Ireland by providing up to 80 per cent of the cost of research work on the development of new and improved products, processes or services, or the generation of new knowledge and know-how.
“The programme helps companies to utilise technology to help improve their competitiveness,” explains programme manager Lawrence Lee. “Typically, the company might have a technical problem it is not able to solve. Or it may be an opportunity to improve products or process by using science and technology. The company might not have the expertise to do it alone and the programme helps it to partner with a research group in Ireland that does have the infrastructure and expertise. The research team develops the solution for the business and helps to integrate it.”
There are other advantages to partnering with research institutes. “Sometimes the researchers have seen the problem before and know the best technology to use,” says Lee. “They might know if there is a better way than the one proposed by the company. It is not just about implementing what the companies want, sometimes the partner delivers something much better.”
The project cost is subject to a maximum of €200,000, but larger projects have been supported. “We evaluate projects on a case-by-case basis,” Lee adds. “In a normal year, around 70 companies benefit from the programme. There is also an innovation partnership feasibility support grant for companies which may not be sure about the scope and scale of the project. The grant offers funding of up to €9,000 to assist in engaging with researchers and research-performing organisations to scope out their project and see what is required.”
One company to benefit from Innovation Partnership Programme support is Aerogen, which makes nebulisers to deliver medicines in an aerosol format to the lung. With the support of the programme, Aerogen worked with University of Limerick and Tyndall National Institute to optimise the quality and performance of its products.
Another company to benefit is Galway-based prosthetics and orthotics provider Apos. “Prosthetics is replacing body parts externally,” explains managing director Breda Clancy. “Orthotics is the application of external devices to a part of the body to either maintain or alter the position or a joint or body part.”
Orthotics are most commonly used to reduce pain and discomfort, improve mobility and function, and to reduce risk of further injury.
“We started up in 2002 to provide prosthetic and orthotic services to the west and midland regions,” says Clancy. “Since then, we expanded nationwide and are now moving into exports. We employ 32 staff at our manufacturing base in Oranmore and in our Dublin office. We employ 11 prosthetist orthotists, along with a team of skilled technicians. We have a very skilled team for this niche market.”
Everything the company produces is custom made for patients. And this is not just related to how well the device fits. Clancy points out that a patient may have other physical impairments which may restrict their ability to put on a prosthesis. “The prosthesis has to be designed and made to work for that person’s life,” she adds.
That customisation makes for a very labour-intensive workflow involving frequent visits to patients. This restricted both production capacity and the size of the addressable market. The Innovation Partnership Programme supported Apos to work with Irish Manufacturing Research to digitalise its workflow and adopt the latest 3-D printing technology. Apos is now in a position to slimline its process, reduce the patients’ visits and extend its offering to international markets.
“We changed the process to additive manufacturing for part of the range,” says Clancy. “This has improved the products and our service to patients. It has also reduced material costs and improve repeatability. One of the big drivers for the project was material costs, both financial and environmental. In the current manufacturing process two-thirds of the material used is discarded. Additive manufacturing is very precise and accurate, and it reduces waste and the cost of disposal. The new process is faster as well.”
It will also help the company access export markets. “We may be able to serve markets abroad without having to travel as much,” she says. “We are still using the traditional process for some of our products but will shift to the rest of the range to the additive process over time.”
Accessing the programme is straightforward. “It is open all year round and companies can approach Enterprise Ireland for help in finding a research partner or go to a partner directly to prepare an application for funding,” says Lee.