Mark Christal, Enterprise Ireland, Divisional Manager, Food and Sustainability
In these difficult times, with Brexit, Covid and more recently inflation, many Irish companies are struggling, and investing in research may just be the last thing on their minds.
But the idea should not be so easily dismissed, according to Mark Christal, Enterprise Ireland’s Divisional Manager, Food and Sustainability. “We understand that a lot of companies have tight margins at the moment,” he says. “While I’m mindful of this, I should point out that there’s a proven link between the level of innovation and sales performance, leading to turnover.”
Research by Enterprise Ireland has backed this up. The analysis has shown that companies which are RD&I-active have more than three times the export sales than those that are not.
There are criteria to qualify as an Enterprise Ireland client. The company must be based in Ireland, employ more than 10 people, and it should be export-focussed. While not all sales have to be driven by the export market, the company should be planning to grow their exports.
At present, 450 food and drink companies across the dairy, drinks, meat, and prepared consumer foods categories, are clients of Enterprise Ireland. They range in terms of size and stages of growth, from start-ups, to multinationals, and every size of company in between.
“The key message we try to put across is that irrespective of your size, or your stage of growth, there are supports available at Enterprise Ireland that can help you to innovate and to carry out research,” says Mark. “Sometimes, I think it can be confusing for companies because there’s so much on offer, but we try to keep it simple and explain things as coherently as possible.”
At start-up level for example, Enterprise Ireland offers the Exploring Innovation Grant, which goes up to as much as EUR35,000. This grant applies to companies that are starting out and considering which innovations could be relevant to them.
Then, there’s the Agile Innovation Grant, which was originally introduced to help companies cope with Brexit, but is still available. It goes up to EUR300,000 and is appropriate for focussed projects that require fast research. It’s agile both in terms of the application, which has been made purposefully easy, and what the research is aiming to do. There are also other Enterprise Ireland in-house innovation grants that can exceed that amount. In addition to the Agile R&D projects, Enterprise Ireland supports large-scale research and development projects which require significant company investment in R&D. These projects are regularly supported by Enterprise Ireland through the appropriate R&D grant offers.
All of these grants are for more than just new product development, says Mark. “It’s about packaging, technology, people, and marketing. What’s more, digitalisation, automation, robotics, and data analytics are areas that are fast becoming relevant in research these days.”
It helps however if companies are aware of what they would like to achieve. “The best type of innovations is market-led, where a company has spotted a gap in the market and has an awareness of what they want to do and what it will achieve,” says Mark.
Crucially, Enterprise Ireland not only provides companies with grants, but points them in the right direction and introduces them to the right people to carry out the research. As a result, they have a team of people working in the agency which includes development advisors and technical experts, and can call on outside experts when necessary. “Every company is assigned their own designated advisor who they can lift the phone and talk to at any time,” emphasises Mark. “We’re always accessible.”
Enterprise Ireland also facilitates collaborative research, which involves companies working on a sectoral basis, or engaging with third level institutions, when they require extensive expertise. “In addition, we have a Technology Gateway Programme in our universities and third levels,” says Mark. “This involves companies going in and accessing the expertise themselves. We simply let them know what’s available.”
Despite the fact that many companies within the food and drink sector are in competition, these days many are collaborating in terms of research. Exciting innovations are taking place in the Dairy Processing Technology Centre (DPTC) at the University of Limerick, Food Health Ireland, and the Meat Technology Centre. “The issue of genomics in cattle is one example,” says Mark. “These are really positive and very exciting developments which will benefit the whole sector in the long run.”
The research at these centres is funded in a collaborative way too. A third of the money comes from Enterprise Ireland, a third from the companies involved in the sector, and a third from researchers who can generate their own income from the work they do, as well as from European Horizon Research Funding and other grants.
Another area showing exciting signs of growth is the agtech sector. “We see real potential for innovation here, given the number of Irish companies involved in cutting-edge developments for food security and climate issues,” says Mark.
This brings us to the issue of sustainability, which is increasingly important to Irish food and drink companies and feeds into their R&D policies. “What we’re seeing is that companies are now viewing sustainability as an opportunity to be more competitive, in terms of marketing and how they sell themselves. This is hugely positive.”
Mark points to the Bord Bia, Irish Food Board’s, designated sustainability programme, Origin Green which has played a huge part in encouraging companies here to be sustainable and explains that Enterprise Ireland are about to launch a new range of climate supports. “Irish food and drinks companies are these days looking at their overall sustainability footprint and that ties into the existing innovative culture,” he says. “It’s about looking ahead.”
All of this contributes to Ireland’s reputation as a centre for R&D. “When food and drinks companies consider Ireland as a potential location, they want to see what the innovative landscape is like,” says Mark. “We’ve added to that over the years with technology companies and with more collaboration with third level institutions, and also across the industry, but we still have more to do.
“We’d like to see more companies investing in R&D because we can prove that innovation impacts directly on performance and that creates profit.”
What Mark and his colleagues at Enterprise Ireland enjoy seeing most is companies reaping the benefits of research they helped to facilitate. “If you ask anyone on the team, they will tell you that what they really enjoy most is seeing a company grow,” he says. “Whatever size it grows to, it creates jobs, and all of those jobs are important. More and more, these jobs are also engaged in production practices that are increasingly environmentally sustainable. When those come together, it’s very satisfying.”
This article was first published in IrishFood magazine, July 2022.