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Invest NI

Enterprise, Trade And Investment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 3rd November 2009.

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Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP 3:00 pm, 3rd November 2009

4. asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment how Invest NI intends to encourage innovation and the development of incubators in small and medium sized enterprises.    (AQO 306/10)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Through its current corporate plan, Invest Northern Ireland is committed to increasing its focus on innovation and research and development activities, with its associated budget for R&D set to rise from £15 million to £42 million during the 2008-2011 corporate plan period. That work is being undertaken across a range of support programmes. In particular, the new grant for the R&D scheme has been developed to help address the R&D deficit in Northern Ireland by providing streamlined, transparent and accessible support for R&D and technical innovation at all stages of company development.

Since the scheme’s launch last December, assistance totalling more than £13 million has been offered to businesses for research and development projects, and more than £9 million of that has been committed to SMEs.

Invest Northern Ireland recognises the value of separating the provision of a business incubation process from the provision of incubator buildings. The develop­ment of high-quality managed workspace is recognised as a commercial matter and, with significant incubator space already available across Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland does not believe that there is evidence of market failure in that respect.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP 3:15 pm, 3rd November 2009

Does the Minister believe that there is sufficient knowledge in Invest NI and other agencies about the operation and development of incubators and their spin-out from innovation in colleges and universities?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Yes, I do. Through Northern Ireland Spin Out (NISPO), we are helping to facilitate some of the spin-outs from the universities. The NISPO funds allow companies to make the move from universities, where a lot of our innovation happens, into marketable competitive companies. The NISPO fund manager is required to proactively help increase the volume and pace of development of spin-out companies emerging from Northern Ireland’s research base and centres of excellence. I am content that that work is going well. Within NISPO is the proof-of-concept fund, which is specifically for universities. Through Invest Northern Ireland, we are keenly concentrating on R&D and innovation as we move forward. We believe that that is where the next big thing will come from.

Photo of Paul Butler Paul Butler Sinn Féin

The Minister talked about new grants for research and development. However, given that the Barnett review recommended a new emphasis on innovation and research and development, does the Minister agree that there must be fundamental changes in Invest NI to bring that about?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I welcome the comments that Richard Barnett made about R&D and innovation. Members need to remember that the Barnett report looks at Invest Northern Ireland historically, and it is acknowledged that, already, Invest Northern Ireland is making moves in relation to innovation and research and development. For example, in December last year, I announced a new grant for R&D. That grant cuts down on the paperwork, is a user-friendly way to apply for money, is streamlined and transparent and provides accessible support for research and development.

The new programme will help to underpin the delivery of the Matrix imperatives, and I hope to say more about the Matrix report and what we are doing on those issues. As we move forward, Matrix will be key, and I hope that the Member agrees with that. Through Matrix, science, academia and industry will work together, facilitated by us, to look for the next big thing and move it forward into the commercial field. I am very excited about what Matrix can do for people in Northern Ireland, and part of that will be the work that Invest Northern Ireland is doing already.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister seems to be suggesting that the increases mean that funding for incubators has reached its ceiling. Will the Minister encourage more partnerships between North and South on incubator businesses so that we can exploit that potential for the good of both jurisdictions?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

As far as I am aware, that is, in part, happening through InterTradeIreland’s Acumen programme. I hope that I have named the right programme; sometimes, between Invest NI and InterTradeIreland, there are so many programmes that one gets confused. However, I think that it is the Acumen programme in which work is done with the universities to help with initial ideas and then to exploit those ideas. For example, at the last NSMC meeting, a company in Monaghan made a presentation to me and Minister Coughlan on the work that it had been able to carry out with the University of Ulster. Therefore, some of that work is already happening. Invest Northern Ireland and its chief executive have made it clear to me that they see their work being increasingly concentrated on research and development, innovation and looking to the future.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

How will the innovation vouchers scheme help small and medium-sized enterprises?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The innovation vouchers programme was run as a pilot project last year, and it exceeded all our expectations. Our target for the pilot was 50 participants, but 250 vouchers were issued, so we significantly exceeded our target. The scheme gives businesses £4,000 on an innovation voucher to work with higher education colleges, universities or the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute to develop their ideas into commercial projects. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Orchard County Foods in Craigavon to see its work. That small company had innovative ideas, and it was able to work with one of the agricultural colleges to help to develop them. The innovation vouchers scheme is working well. The scheme has been brought into the mainstream, and I hope that it will provide many small and medium-sized enterprises with the support that they require.