Innovation Vouchers: helping SMEs to develop creative solutions
Innovation Vouchers are an excellent way for companies to tap into leading research expertise in order to develop a solution or product at the pre-commercial stage. The scheme allows businesses to improve their innovation capability and builds links between Ireland’s public sector knowledge providers and the SME community.
Innovation Vouchers were launched by Enterprise Ireland seven years ago and have proved phenomenally successful. Some 1,400 applications are received every year, around 70% of which are successful.
Innovation Vouchers offer Irish SMEs the chance to connect with knowledge providers around the country in order to develop a solution or product. Vouchers are worth €5,000, valid for 12 months and can be redeemed at one of the 38 registered centres that provide leading academic expertise (ROI and NI).
As the name suggests, vouchers can be used for any kind of product or application that is truly innovative, such as:
- new product/process development
- new business model development
- new service delivery and customer interface
- new service development
- tailored training in innovation management
- innovation/technology audit
Innovation Vouchers are the only Enterprise Ireland funding you can cumulate with the New Frontiers grant of €15,000. A company can apply for up to three vouchers, if one of those is a co-funded voucher (see below). Vouchers are only redeemable against the net cost of the services provided, so the company will have to cover the VAT cost of the voucher – which will be billed by the knowledge provider in question.
How does it work?
There are currently two main types of voucher:
Standard Voucher (€5,000)
A standard voucher is valid for 12 months and can be used with any of the registered knowledge providers. You must apply for a standard voucher during one of Enterprise Ireland’s open calls. There are usually three calls a year, in Q1, Q2 and Q3. Dates are published on the Innovation Voucher page of the Enterprise Ireland website. N.B. The latest call has just opened and closes on Wednesday, 20th May at 3pm.
Co-funded Fast Track Voucher (€5,000)
This option is suitable for companies that have already been awarded two Standard Vouchers and are not eligible for more; OR where timing is short and the company cannot wait for the next call for a Standard Voucher.
The co-funded voucher is for projects costing up to €10,000, paid for on a 50/50 basis by the Innovation Voucher and the company. For these projects, the company and the chosen knowledge provider must jointly agree on the programme of work before submitting the application. Applications can be submitted at any time, and a decision can usually be given within three weeks.
To apply for an Innovation Voucher, the company must be:
- An SME (fewer than 250 employees and a turnover below €50 Million/balance sheet below €43 Million)
- A registered Irish company, in any sector other than the agricultural sector (specific supports are available to this sector from the relevant agencies)
- A for-profit privately held company (non-profits, charities, semi-states, trade associations, sports clubs, company representation bodies and non-commercial organisations are not eligible for Innovation Vouchers)
Other points to remember:
- Applications can only be made online via the Enterprise Ireland Online Application system.
- You don’t have to be an Enterprise Ireland client or have an Enterprise Ireland Development Advisor to apply for an Innovation Voucher.
- Vouchers may only be used for work with one of the registered knowledge providers – they are publicly funded organisations such as Universities, Institutes of Technology and research centres.
- Companies can only have one “active” voucher at any time. A voucher must be redeemed by the knowledge provider, and the VAT costs paid in full by the company, before another voucher can be applied for.
- The intellectual property developed during the project is owned by the company, unless agreed otherwise.
Innovation vouchers have been used in areas as diverse as retail, business services, forestry, telecoms & software, engineering, life sciences, electronics and food.
Maximise your chances of a successful application
Applying for an Innovation Voucher is very straightforward, but as always a little preparation can save you wasting your time on an application that has no chance of success:
- Read the comprehensive FAQs on the Enterprise Ireland website (PDF), it explains all the criteria and procedures involved.
- Make sure that you are eligible. You must be a registered company (not a sole trader) and meet the eligibility criteria.
- Make sure that your project is eligible. The vouchers are available for a wide variety of solutions, but activities such as software/web development and marketing/advertising are excluded.
- Make sure you complete the application form fully. You need to demonstrate the highly innovative nature of the solution you intend to develop, and the benefit that this will bring to your company.
Examples of companies that have benefited from Innovation Vouchers
Monford Ag Systems – GrassOmeter
Steven Lock is an award-winning TV producer and director. It was in 2010, while filming the series Farmers – A year on the land, that Steven first saw what an issue grass measurement is for farmers. Most use a plate meter – as the name suggests, it is essentially a large disc that moves up and down a pole, allowing an average height reading to be taken – which is cumbersome, slow and not very accurate.
A chance conversation with Dr John Whelan, from Trinity College, led Steven to look into the Innovation Vouchers scheme. He applied, and the voucher allowed him to have the resources of a researcher for a month to look at developing a different way to measure grass. A second voucher was obtained, allowing a mechanical engineer to look at replacing the plate with sensor technology so that the product works as effectively on slopes as it does on the flat.
The GrassOmeter, as the product is known, is currently in the last stages of testing. Steven has secured €1.4 Million in funding, registered two patents and brought on board legendary Apple designer, Jerry Manock, as Head of Design. Steven’s team is now working hard on the final touches that will bring the GrassOmeter to market
It’s a wonderful scheme, because it really does encourage innovation. It’s what prompted me to wonder if there was a better solution to grass measurement. If the vouchers didn’t exist, then neither would the GrassOmeter.
Equiniche Sciences – Harmony Feeder
Dr Michelle O’Connor is a Veterinary Physiotherapist. She had a concept for a hay feeder that would enable stabled horses to eat at ground level and throughout the day – solving the physiological and behavioural problems associated with intermittent feeding and eating in an unnatural position.
Having successfully applied for an initial voucher, Michelle worked with Athlone Institute of Technology’s Centre for Industrial Services and Design to develop and prototype the main polymer body of the feeder. The following year, 2012, a second voucher was used to develop the rubber mesh system which controls access to the hay (both the material and the configuration of the mesh were researched).
The Harmony feeder can be secured at ground level in the stable and holds enough hay for a day, which the horse pulls out from the bottom – mimicking the natural grazing position. The product has received three patents – in the US, the EU and New Zealand. It was launched in the Irish market at the Equus Live Exhibition, Punchestown, in November 2013 and won the inaugural Innovation Award.
As we had limited funds, the scheme gave us the impetus to get started. Without access to the expertise provided, we would not have been able to visualise our product and bring it through development.