The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t put a dampener on innovation activity in Irish companies – if demand for Enterprise Ireland’s Agile Innovation Fund is anything to go by.
"We have been getting a much greater level of interest from smaller companies this year," says Joe Madden, Enterprise Ireland in-company R&D supports manager.
"Applications from Local Enterprise Office [LEO] clients are up from 15 last year to 40 this year. Those are companies with less than 10 employees. That's out of a total of 121 applications so far this year, which is itself a substantial increase on the 89 received last year."
Established in 2018, the Agile Innovation Fund allows companies to access up to 50 per cent support for product, process or service-development projects with a total cost of up to €300,000. It was designed for Irish companies that need to develop solutions very quickly or are embarking on an R&D project for the first time.
A particular feature of the fund is the simplicity and speed of the application process. “Some companies were finding it difficult to navigate the support process, so we simplified and streamlined it,” Madden says.
“It’s a very simple and easy online application process. And it’s very accessible. It should take a few hours to complete the form and we do the assessment after that.”
The application can be processed in less than three days. “We may have to come back and seek further information and clarifications, of course, and that can stretch things out,” says Madden. “It’s still very quick, with the whole process averaging out at just 25 days from application to approval.
“Also, there is no necessity to complete the form in one go. You can start it today and finish it over a few weeks, if you wish. You can ask Enterprise Ireland for help with the application if necessary. If there is a specific technical issue, we can advise a company on it. The LEOs have very much come on board on this and are providing very good advice to their clients on the process.”
Madden advises companies to be upfront in terms of the information they provide. “The applications should set out what the project is and key to that are the technical challenges and risks involved. Sometimes, companies think it is better to say there is no risk or play down the risk as if they are applying for a bank loan. Enterprise Ireland is not a bank and we can only fund a project if there is risk involved.”
Range of projects
The range of projects supported is very wide. "One example is Lidan Designs of Strokestown, Co Roscommon," says Madden. "They design and manufacture structures to provide additional space for people to use as home offices, gyms, playrooms and so on. They needed to improve the modularity of the product made in the plant and to do it quickly. They got funding to support that."
Another example is Galway-based Aran Biomedical, which designs, develops and manufactures implantable medical devices for multinational medtech clients. The company received funding for the development of a new material for use in stent manufacture.
"Delmec makes the masts for mobile phone networks and has a lot of customers in Africa. They have to travel to Africa to test it and so on when the masts are being put up. They got support for the development of a software solution to do everything automatically and allow local people put up the masts," says Madden.
That last project highlights the use of the Agile Innovation Fund for process-improvement projects. “The great thing about it is that it can fund up to 50 per cent of the cost of those projects subject to maximum expenditure of €300,000. The maximum grant is 45 per cent for product development but that can increase to 50 per cent if the project is carried out in collaboration with a partner.”
Madden also advises companies to be clear about the costs involved in a project. “The fundamental thing you have to do is explain the technical challenge,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to be innovative. And don’t try to minimise the costs. Make sure you don’t underestimate them.”
Those costs can include the staff time that will be devoted to working on the project and that doesn’t have to be additional people specifically employed for it. “There is no ceiling to the fund,” Madden says.
“The only target is for the country to spend a lot more on R&D. The Government is supporting that aim through a wide range of measures like the R&D tax credit and the Agile Innovation Fund.”