8th July 2021
For busy SMEs, research and development can often be pushed down the agenda and considered an expensive luxury — in terms of time and money — rather than an essential tool that can help to make them more competitive and successful. However, recent data indicates that companies that collaborate with third-level institutes on research, development and innovation (RD&I) have double the turnover of those that do not. These companies are also likely to have significantly higher sales and exports.
The good news for SMEs not already on their innovation journey is that there is a €1 billion R&D resource available to help companies in Ireland to partner with research organisations through various financial and other supports — everything from a basic €5,000 Innovation Voucher to the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF), which involves projects with a minimum €1.5 million funding requirement and larger amounts of finance through Horizon Europe, the EU’s funding programme for research and innovation valued at €95.5 billion.
The opportunities — and the potential benefits — for companies with the ambition to develop or improve their products, services or processes through working with the third level are immense, according to Alison Campbell, director of Knowledge Transfer Ireland (KTI).
“Most companies that have an interest in pursuing research and development and in innovating can probably benefit from knowledge transfer and accessing the research expertise and facilities that are available in third-level and other state-funded research organisations,” she says.
For any company interested in finding out about the financial supports available — as well as information about the different potential collaborations and research organisations — the KTI website (knowledgetransferireland.com) is a great first port of call. The site has a range of guides covering everything from managing confidentiality and developing partnership agreements to an overview of who is doing what in terms of research and expertise around the country.
It also hosts KTI’s recently launched Directory of Research, Development & Innovation Supports for Enterprise 2021, which Campbell describes as “the definitive road map” for businesses interested in benefiting from public Irish research, as well as the wider R&D supports available from state sources.
The site and the directory have details of all the financial supports aimed at helping companies with their R&D requirements. For SMEs not familiar with working with the research system, an Enterprise Ireland Innovation Voucher can often be a good starting point. The voucher can be spent with a registered research provider to help solve a particular problem.
The €5,000 can be used for any kind of innovation, including, for example, the development of products or processes, business models or services; new service delivery and customer interface; tailored training in innovation management; and innovation or technology audits.
Two types of vouchers are available under the programme, which is open to all SMEs registered in Ireland: the fully funded €5,000 standard voucher and the co-funded €5,000 fast-track voucher. Companies can receive a maximum of three vouchers.
Campbell sees this scheme as a great way for companies to get an initial understanding of what it’s like working with researchers and the third-level system. It is often a platform for going on to other larger funding mechanisms, either with the same researcher or somewhere else.
“It’s a nice way of building confidence and familiarity and starting the journey,” Campbell says. But it is not a mandatory starting point and it may not be the right fit for all SMEs, she adds. “Some companies may be more familiar with the system or will know what they want. And that might be something that’s a bit chunkier than what’s available through the kind of work you can get done for €5,000.”
One of the initiatives catering for those chunkier projects is the Innovation Partnership Programme, which is also available through Enterprise Ireland. This scheme supports Irish-based companies working with organisations that perform research to develop new and improved products, processes and services, and to create knowledge and know-how. Research carried out under this scheme should ultimately help the partnering company — or companies — to gain a commercial advantage. For the research partners, the benefits can be developing skill sets, intellectual property and publications.
The programme, which is open to Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Local Enterprise Office and Údarás na Gaeltachta clients, can provide between 40 to 80 per cent of the research costs of eligible projects, up to a maximum of €200,000 in funding.
Elsewhere, one of the big hitters in the funding support stakes is the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF), a ten-year €500 million facility run by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and administered by Enterprise Ireland. The DTIF supports significant research projects involving consortiums with a minimum of three partners, with at least one SME and one other enterprise partner on board.
The fund is solely aimed at collaborations that involve disruptive research and innovation that could potentially result in new technologies and applications that will ultimately have a positive impact on the Irish economy. Where most funding mechanisms have maximum thresholds, the DTIF is looking for minimum requests of €1.5 million for projects of up to three years’ duration. Up to 100 per cent of eligible costs may be covered for successful applications.
Collaborative research projects can also be funded under the Science Foundation Ireland Spokes Programme. The aim of the programme is to add industrial partners and projects to existing SFI research centres to help them to develop in line with new priorities and opportunities. The programme can fund research relating to the specialist areas covered by one or more of the 16 SFI centres. Research programmes operating under this scheme are funded 50:50 by the company involved and SFI.
Another scheme that involves 50:50 co-funding by companies and SFI is the Science Foundation Ireland Strategic Partnership Programme, which is focused on supporting compelling research opportunities that are not covered elsewhere. This programme primarily targets standalone initiatives of scale and is particularly suitable for higher-risk research.
Grants, funds and tax credits are also available for companies carrying out in-house and other research and development. Besides funding, companies also need to think about what they need to bring to the relationship. While the research partner will usually do the heavy lifting, these partnerships do require some effort from the SME.
“There are lots of supports available to help companies financially and to give them access to technical facilities and expertise,” Campbell says. “But entering into any of these kinds of relationships will require some level of commitment. That will involve the company thinking through and discussing their problems and challenges. It will mean keeping an open dialogue in the relationship as the project progresses. And, occasionally, it will involve making some kind of financial commitment.”
Source:The Sunday Times