Cash to create

Academic expertise to the value of £3,000 is being offered via government vouchers to help small firms innovate. Ahn Nguyen reports.

A government scheme that gives smaller companies innovation vouchers that can be exchanged for £3,000 worth of expert help from universities is to be rolled out across England after successful trials in the West Midlands.

According to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills’ (DIUS) latest White Paper, an initial investment of £3m will be made to provide vouchers to at least 500 small and medium-sized businesses across the English regions to work with an institution of their choice.

The scheme is an extension of the Innovation Delivers Expansion (INDEX) project, which has been running in the West Midlands since November 2006 and is itself based on a programme that has proved successful in Holland.

‘Companies can choose from a wide range of academic expertise. The procedure begins with a simple online application, with nothing more arduous than contact details and a brief outline of the innovation your company would like to explore and the type of academic expertise required,’ said a spokesperson from the INDEX advice centre based at Aston University. The vouchers are to be awarded on a lottery basis.

DIUS said the government hopes to increase the number of companies receiving them to at least 1,000 a year by 2011. Examples of academic assistance include technical support, market research and product development.

‘Anything that encourages small companies to get closer to innovation suppliers or technology developers is a good thing,’ said Dr John Morton, chief executive of the Engineering and Technology Board. ‘The voucher system will get people beyond the first meeting and, if it means real and sustained contact, there is a greater chance of there being a real flow of ideas.’

Also raised in the White Paper was the need to stimulate demand for science, technology, engineering and manufacturing skills by refocusing the small business research initiative on technology-based research.

‘I think the focus on demand is something that is long overdue. Public sector funding of science and technology has often focused on pumping more money into research and development and hoping something will happen,’ said Dr David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

‘What we are seeing now is the recognition that while that is important, you also have to work hard to create demand. While I would not want to reduce research funding I think it needs to be complemented by adequate funding for the dissemination and application of technology into practical use, which obviously has implications for the demand for engineers.’