Practical innovation support for SMEs

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Paul Radage, Commercial Manager at C-Tech Innovation, looks at three regional innovation support schemes that enable small and medium-sized enterprises to benefit from innovation support so they can improve their products, processes and businesses.

Practical innovation support for SMEsWith UK businesses suffering in the economic recession, it is critical that companies – both manufacturers and service providers alike – continue to research and develop new methods and look for new ways of improving not only their production processes but also their business practices in order to compete in the global economy.

Over half of the UK workforce is now employed by SMEs. The challenge of incorporating innovation into business strategies is often felt most by small organisations – just the same as they feel barriers such as time and resource constraints more than others. Yet these companies are pivotal to the growth of the economy and, although most SMEs realise how important innovation is, change often fails to be implemented for a variety of reasons.

The problem is so acute that the UK continues to fall behind Europe, the USA and the Far East. In terms of spend on R&D, for example, before the economic recession hit, expenditure on R&D in the UK by major firms stood at just two per cent of sales, behind many competitors. In France the spending rate was over 25 per cent higher than this and in Germany, the USA and Japan spending stood between four and five per cent. In China, spend on R&D was also growing by 10 per cent annually. Despite this apparent resistance to invest in R&D, a multitude of innovation assistance packages is available in the UK, at both national and local level. The problem is often that SMEs are simply not aware of the available support.

Innovation advice and guidance

C-Tech Innovation has been providing innovation advice and guidance to SMEs nationally and regionally for many years. Indeed, C-Tech is currently involved in three strategically important, complementary and yet very different innovation support schemes supported by regional development agency funding.

One of these, an Innovation Vouchers scheme, was launched in 2008. The scheme is designed to help businesses – owners, entrepreneurs and social enterprises – to engage in new collaborations with a region's knowledge base by purchasing a knowledge provider's expertise to help the business develop through innovation, eventually improving the bottom line. C-Tech, as a regional knowledge provider, has engaged with regional businesses on a range of issues.

Justin Wrench, Head of C-Tech's Knowledge and Management Services division, is enthusiastic about the support offered, saying: "The scheme has really caught the imagination of SMEs. We have been involved with many diverse aspects of innovation ranging from idea generation and capture, new product development and business planning, through to more deep rooted cultural challenges that entrepreneurs often struggle with."

To date, the scheme has provided vouchers of £3000; presently £7000 vouchers will also be available and will allow more extensive support to take place.

C-Tech has also been providing support through a knowledge to innovate scheme, which, since 2007, has been helping more than 400 businesses that recognise the importance of innovation but also require practical assistance to successfully take their knowledge and experience to the next level.

The scheme allows C-Tech to work with companies on a one-to-one basis over a period of time. The benefit of this longer-term approach is that specific innovation needs across the business can be addressed, with plans tailored for specific needs. Innovation capacity is also built up within the businesses themselves, which paves the way for lasting benefit to be felt.

Innovation needs to encompass more than the just product or service innovation. Firms need to go beyond this and consider how they can bring innovation to their business processes, supply chain and markets. Even complex cultural issues need to be examined and a decision made as to whether these are preventing businesses from moving forward as they could do and, if so, they then need to be addressed. C-Tech has developed a range of thought-provoking and interactive training resources that do just this, geared to managing the complex, multi-faceted innovation process more effectively.

Eco-innovation programme

A more recent eco-innovation programme, being delivered by C-Tech and Lancaster University, tackles environmental issues as well and will assist organisations to harness their creativity to generate improvements in products, processes or systems which also have a positive impact on the environment.

Participating SMEs will be assigned an Advisor who conducts an initial eco-innovation review. This helps to identify areas of current strengths and opportunities for the business. A bespoke proposal is then created in collaboration with the business, including specific output targets that the company wishes to achieve. The advisor then works with the business in implementing these proposals, followed by a focus on embedding the innovation process within the company, including the actual setting up of new R&D programmes, development of a new design or manufacturing process, or the setting up of new ventures and the incubation of new companies.

Again, a key attribute of the scheme is the presence of one-to-one working to identify specific challenges and implement bespoke opportunities for this eco-innovation within each company. Participation also allows companies to draw upon a suite of additional services delivered by Lancaster University's business support programmes including the Graduate Consultancy Scheme.

For more information on C-Tech Innovation or the knowledge to innovate, innovation vouchers or eco-innovation schemes, contact Paul Radage on +44 (0)151 347 2900 or email .

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