Big money for small businesses

Invest Northern Ireland has launched a £900,000 initiative for small businesses, enabling them to partner with research centres of excellence to access practical advice in support of their growth and export ambitions.

From 1 June, small businesses can apply for “Innovation Vouchers”, up to a maximum value of £4,000 (€5,000), which they can redeem against the cost of practical advice and expertise on specific operational projects from a range of specialised “knowledge providers”. Funding for this, which will lead to a cultural shift in the small business community’s approach to innovation, is being provided through the £90m Innovation Fund, announced in January 2008.

The knowledge providers are universities, further education colleges and publicly funded research bodies covering a range of technical and business areas. They are located right across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. By jointly administering the initiative with Enterprise Ireland, Invest NI can offer local small businesses access to the considerable intellectual resources of 38 knowledge providers, regardless of their location on the island.

Small businesses which apply successfully will engage with an appropriate knowledge provider according to the specific technical demands of their project. The knowledge available can be applied to areas such as product development, process streamlining and business technology auditing.

Interested companies can apply online at

Launching the initiative at the Northern Ireland Science Park today, Invest NI’s Managing Director of Innovation and Capability Development Tracy Meharg said: “The greatest opportunity for generating additional wealth for Northern Ireland lies in encouraging our companies to realise that reaching their full potential requires innovation at all levels. But innovation is not limited to high-tech R&D; it is also about doing things better and developing new, sometimes simple, improvements to products and processes.

“Innovation Vouchers will enable local small businesses to more easily draw upon the wealth of academic expertise that exists in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in order to help them move their business forward. By investing in innovation, perhaps for the first time, small businesses can make significant commercial gains and position themselves to exploit opportunities which may not have otherwise been available to them.”

Ms Meharg added: “Northern Ireland small businesses wishing to apply for an Innovation Voucher should visit the website for more information, or contact their nearest Invest NI regional office.”

The Innovation Voucher initiative was launched in the Republic of Ireland last year and in the Netherlands in 2004, and has already proved successful in both countries. At the launch event delegates heard more on these successes from Robert van Haaften of the Dutch SME Knowledge Network, which administers the scheme in the Netherlands.

Speaking at the launch event, Feargal Ó’Móráin, Executive Director of Enterprise Ireland, said: “I am delighted to see the Innovation Voucher initiative being introduced to Northern Ireland. Enterprise Ireland’s experience to date has been that the success of the vouchers is due to the simplicity of the initiative. Participating companies get excellent value for money and by linking up on this initiative Enterprise Ireland and Invest NI can now direct voucher holders to a total of 38 knowledge providers on both sides of the border.”