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A fresh tendering approach to big societal problems

Small Business Innovation Research puts problems out to tender, not solutions

Flooding, illegal dumping, bathing-water quality, and increasing the number of cyclists on Dublin’s streets are some of the problems being addressed in novel ways by the Enterprise Ireland managed Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) initiative. This is a national pre-commercial procurement programme that aims to meet societal needs and challenges by tapping into wells of private-sector innovation that would not normally be available to public bodies.

When a public body such as a local authority or State enterprise has a problem to be solved, they usually specify the solution and put that out to tender. But that is no guarantee that the solution is either the best one or indeed that it will even work.

An approach that has proved much more fruitful internationally is to put the challenge itself out to tender to allow innovative small companies and individuals to come up with solutions no one had thought of before. This is at the heart of SBIR.

"We got the idea for the programme in 2015," says SBIR Ireland manager Marguerite Bourke. "We had local SMEs coming to us saying they couldn't get access to public-sector bodies. We looked around internationally and saw the pre-commercial model. The challenge owner is buying R&D. It starts with funding a feasibility study and then moves on to finding a solution."


It's a tool to release innovation into the public sector, she adds. "It's been done in the US since the 1980s. A number of government departments there put 3 per cent of their budgets aside for it. The Netherlands, Japan, and the UK also have programmes."

UK model

The UK model was seen as a useful one to follow. "We looked closely at that. In the NHS, their equivalent programme, SBRI, has impacted over 1.2 million patients, secured savings of up to £30 million to date, with future value pipeline estimated at £1.8 billion, reduced waiting times and stays in hospital, and addressed challenges in areas such as cancer and diabetes."

“There could be 10 different ways to solve a problem,” Bourke continues. “There is a great network of innovators out there who love to solve problems. We put them together with challenge owners, and they work with each other to solve the problem.”

The two-phase process involves a feasibility study followed by prototype development. Companies involved get a 100 per cent funded development contract, which is 50 per cent funded by Enterprise Ireland and the relevant public body.

“Enterprise Ireland and the public body involved put together a brief description of the problem and put it up on eTenders,” she says. “Companies and individuals respond with expressions of interest, and an evaluation panel from the public and private sectors decides which partners to bring on to phase one. Once that is complete, companies are chosen to move on to phase two.”

One successful participant is "internet of things" specialist Danalto. The Trinity College Dublin spin-out is involved in a project to address flooding in Dublin. "We had already heard about SBIR through American companies who had used that model in the US," he says. "When I saw that Enterprise Ireland were looking to adopt it here, I encouraged them to go ahead. It's a great way of helping small businesses to work and engage with public bodies."

The company is working with Dublin City Council on a project to detect when gullies overflow. "We wanted to do this because it is quite a difficult and challenging environment to work in," says McDonald. "It was a great way to prove out some of the tools we are development."

Gullies overflowing

The problem to be addressed was the requirement to know exactly which gullies are overflowing so that engineering teams can go out and take remedial action as well as steps to prevent flooding.

“We deployed sensors that can detect when a gully is overflowing”, McDonald explains. “They transmit signals back to us and we notify the council. At present we are testing sensors in 50 gullies.”

The programme is addressing 20 challenges across Ireland involving the Office of Public Works, the four Dublin authorities through Smart Dublin, Waterford Council, Cork City Council, Clare County Council, Limerick Council, Cork Airport, Irish Rail and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

“We are engaging with the HSE to launch our first health challenge in the coming months,” Bourke adds. “Our vision is to extend SBIR to all government departments and the public sector. There is huge potential for SMEs to use innovation and technology to solve societal problems. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

sbirireland.ie @sbirireland