A successful business has innovation at its heart

Invest NI's Director of Innovation and Technology Solutions, highlights the vital role innovation plays in business success.

Increasingly companies of all shapes and sizes are asking themselves what they need to do to gain an advantage in the marketplace in order to compete and win new business. In the majority of cases, the answer is to innovate.

But what is innovation?

"Innovation is the application of ideas that add value to your business and help you stand out from the rest."

There is a frequent misconception that innovation equals R&D but innovation is much more than that.

Innovation can include changes to products and processes, the introduction of new business models, organisational changes or the entrance to new markets.

Innovation is absolutely essential to wider economic growth and has never been higher up the agenda of governments. The Department of Enterprise Trade & Investment’s Innovation Strategy 2014-2025 sets out the key long term actions necessary to ensure innovation plays its full part in realising our economic growth.

The Northern Ireland Innovation Strategy aims to stimulate a step change in innovation and in doing so deliver a vision that: Northern Ireland, by 2025, will be recognised as an innovation hub and will be one of the UK’s leading high-growth, knowledge-based regions which embraces creativity and innovation at all levels of society.

"Firms investing in skills, leadership, design, branding, process improvement, resource efficiency, training or marketing are investing in innovation."

Northern Ireland has a business profile biased toward the “S” of SMEs and innovation can appear daunting. It is not, it takes many forms and there is a ready supply of help & advice available.

Research group NESTA states that less than 20 per cent of investment in innovation by UK firms is in the form of R&D. This means over 80 per cent of innovation is not R&D investment. Here are some examples:

  • Blessingbourne Estate in Fivemiletown has benefited from Invest NI’s Design Service to help improve its competitiveness. The company received our support to tap into the expertise and talents of Bag Of Bee’s design agency. The agency focused on enhancing the business’ profile online by rejuvenating the Blessingbourne brand and upgrading its website. The marketing difference is clear to see.

Businesses can tap into the specialist knowledge of dedicated advisors or seek guidance through nibusinessinfo.co.uk, the official online business advice channel in Northern Ireland. Both can provide the direction and know how that businesses need to grow, particularly via new market entry.

  • Newly established business Premium Cosmetic Choices Ltd from Cookstown is successfully selling its Bellamianta tanning product to chemists, salons, spas and retailers across Ireland as a result of the specialist knowledge from Invest NI. Business founders, Lisa McDermott and Linda Stinson, benefited from a range of advice and support to develop their brand and secure a Community trademark. Premium Cosmetic Choices also received advice about the formula for its products and complying with EU Cosmetics Directive Regulations. Invest NI supported the testing of the tanning lotion which included stability assessment, viscosity testing, and microbiological challenge testing and safety assessment. This was a vital step required to secure sales.

Our Innovation Voucher Programme is one vehicle that many small and medium sized companies across Northern Ireland are using to become more competitive. Businesses benefit by developing new or improving products, processes and services or tapping into research and scientific expertise to gain a competitive edge. The voucher is worth up to £5,000 and businesses use it to access expertise from one of 39 universities, colleges and other publicly funded research organisations throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Over 1100 businesses have benefited from the scheme since it was introduced and we are continuing to attract companies who are keen to work with us on an innovation project to grow their business by diversification or exploring new opportunities.

  • Derrylin-based business Crust and Crumb has grown its workforce by five and turnover by £500,000 following product development undertaken with help from Invest Northern Ireland’s Innovation Vouchers. Crust and Crumb manufactures fresh pizzas for the retail sector and part baked frozen pizza bases for the food service industry. Using an Innovation Voucher the company accessed the expertise of technologists at The Food Technology Centre, St Angela’s College in Sligo to develop a range of award winning stuffing. The business now produces stuffing for chicken products supplied to customers such as Tesco, Dunnes and Lidl. The company’s continued focus on innovation has also resulted in the development of a range of gluten free pizzas that are high in protein and low in fat. It has successfully taken this product range to market and now supplies pizzas to online business MuscleFood for its UK customer base.

Innovative businesses are more productive, growing sales and employment twice as fast as their non-innovating competitors.

For Northern Ireland to create a strong economy it needs to increase its productivity. Productivity growth is driven by dynamic businesses delivering differentiated product and service offerings, process development, resource efficiency, effective market strategies and customer experience.

Undoubtedly, there is a direct link between innovation and increased competitiveness yet Northern Ireland firms report among the lowest levels of innovation activity amongst the UK regions.

Invest NI has a range of advice and support designed to help local businesses embrace innovation in all its forms. For many, the free advice and support available in areas such as intellectual property, process efficiency, resource efficiency, exploring new markets and researching businesses premises is invaluable.

We want more local businesses across all sectors to, recognise the many facets of innovation, engage in innovation and take advantage of the full range of Invest NI support on offer. Don’t talk about it – do it.