ANN CAHILL: Firms tap EU for innovation funds

THE economic downturn is forcing small businesses and scientists to join forces like never before and search for the products of the future.

Irish companies, once laggards when it came to investing in research, are now fighting for survival and are tapping into funds available for innovation.

The numbers applying for a share of the EU’s massive €50 billion budget has increased dramatically in the past few months. This is expected to expand further with the release by Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn of the latest tranche of funding. Worth €6.4bn, the money is expected to generate 165,000 jobs across the EU and involve about 3,000 small and medium sized enterprises.

And €1.3bn has been reserved for the EU’s most creative scientists to carry out research. Ireland set itself a target of getting 1.25% or about €600 million of this budget over the seven years of the programme, but is running well ahead of this at 1.45%, said Catriona Ward of Enterprise Ireland.

Based in Brussels her job is to help Irish researchers and businesses to identify and benefit as much as possible from the world’s biggest research budget. The money is released in stages over its seven-year life to 2013, with larger amounts becoming available towards the end of the programme.

Ms Ward said this means there is even greater potential for Ireland to tap into the fund. “The number of queries and proposals for funding... is increasing which is very good news, but we need new players to become involved too.

“The economic downturn will help us to keep up the momentum as researchers that would normally have to leave the country can now access European funds,” she said. The €6.4bn announced yesterday is designed to tackle challenges in health and ageing population including new medicines, climate change, energy and food security.

Both the EU and Enterprise Ireland are encouraging more SMEs to become involved as they employ the majority of the population and are the key to future growth. Traditionally Irish universities have been the most active in accessing the funds taking about 60% but it is hoped more Institutes of Technology and businesses will become involved too.

Ms Ward points out that SMEs do not even need to do research themselves but can join with a number of other SMEs and researchers.

One area Ireland has been under achieving is in scientists winning grants for frontier research where up to €3.5m is available for a person with a big idea in a field where business may not be even interested in yet.

“Because there was so much money available in the country up to now, we saw very little interest in this area, but there are signs this is changing,” said Ms Ward.

The scientists are selected by the European Research Council with a view to establishing the next generation of independent top research leaders in Europe.


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