Posted on Thursday 23 September 2010 by Ulster Business

BDO’s Angela Reavey and Northern Ireland Science Park chief executive Norman Apsley at the Science Park’s Innovation Centre

As Northern Ireland’s economy enters a period where public finances will be squeezed, Ulster Business talked to BDO about why it has brought together leaders from business and the public sector to investigate the Future of Innovation.

Innovation is the lifeblood of any successful organisation. To many companies it simply means finding a new way of doing something, developing a new product or implementing a new process. But in the best businesses it goes beyond that. For them, innovation is a way of life, something that is ingrained in their culture and encouraged across their workforce. Belfast-based accountancy and business services firm BDO has recognised that a renewed focus on innovation will be fundamental to the Northern Ireland economy as we enter a period of fiscal austerity and reduced spending on services by Government. In its soon to be published industry review ‘The Future of Innovation Looks Like This’, the company has asked leading figures from the business world and public sector to outline their vision of how innovation can drive positive change. “Our economy and the organisations within it will be more successful if they can become more innovative,” explained Partner Michael McDonnell. “If you wind the clock back, there is a history of innovation in Northern Ireland, but not in the recent past. The kind of buzz you get around some of the companies in the Northern Ireland Science Park isn’t something that would characterise all business in Northern Ireland,” he adds. “There are examples of people who have been creative and successful. But our economy has become grant-dependent and government-dependent, and dependent on others to come up with the ideas, rather than looking within. That’s what we are trying to raise awareness off.” The contributors to BDO’s industry review – its third following publications on the Future of Business and the Future of Tourism – are well qualified to give expert opinion on innovation in Northern Ireland. Bruce Robinson, head of the NI Civil Service writes on Service Innovation; Mark Nodder, Managing Director of Wright Group focuses on Innovative Leadership; Steve Brankin from Asidua looks at Market Innovation; Colin Hayburn from Almac shares his expertise in Production Innovation; Tracy Meharg from Invest NI talks about Creating an innovation culture; and the Northern Ireland Science Park’s Norman Apsley outlines the benefits of Innovation Partnership. BDO Partner Angela Reavey believes that with Invest Northern Ireland grants set to be cut, collaborative networks will have an increasing role to play in driving improvement. This could involve everything from suppliers linking up to find new routes to market or improve logistics to learning from other companies about process and leadership. “With scarce funds available, collaborative networks are going to be a necessity for growth in Northern Ireland. We have to become more integrated,” says Reavey. “Tackling a problem with a partner in the supply chain means there is less risk attached to it. They are sharing the costs, comparing ideas, so there’s a greater degree of comfort attached to coming up with a solution. It provides validation and reassurance which makes it happen quicker,” she adds. “This is seen in organisations such as NISP CONNECT where you have those that have already done it giving their support to those that want to do it.” With Reavey a previous Board Member of the Northern Ireland Science Park, BDO has taken a seat at the Science Park to be closer to the cluster of exciting tech start-ups based there, and is sponsoring the NISP CONNECT programme, which aims to foster entrepreneurship by accelerating the growth of promising early stage companies and technologies. The Science Park’s chief executive Norman Apsley believes that innovation and collaboration founded on good science and technology will be an essential building block of Northern Ireland’s economy in future. “Original research is a critical element of university teaching. If we are to keep two high quality, broadly based universities in Northern Ireland, we need to make sure that we do all in our power to get the fruits of that research into our economy,” he says. “This is a two-way street; technology-push or technology-pull on their own are rarely successful. A process is needed which links the people on both sides of the academe-business divide.” These links are needed because existing companies have a limited ability to take on truly disruptive technology, the Science Park chief believes. “Their existing systems and investment base is unlikely to support too radical a departure from the status quo. Big players in agile and effective innovation eco-systems recognise this and support corporate mentoring and venturing projects in order to stay close to new thinking to buy the time to consider change and get the necessary corporate buy-in,” says Apsley. “For similar reasons, disruptive change needs to come to the market by new company creation and venture funding.” As an example Apsley notes that inventor James Watt was an instrument maker for the University of Glasgow, the leading research house in heat physics, thanks to the distilling industry. That industry could not conceive of a use for his more efficient water pump. Watt had to wait until his work was discovered by a Birmingham entrepreneur, Matthew Boulton, some 15 years after Watt’s grant of patent. In turn Watt was vehemently against high-pressure steam and so missed the steam powered transport revolution. Hence the need to challenge the status quo and seek out disruptive processes is fundamental to taking Northern Ireland to the next level. “Effective networking is an essential adjunct to an innovation eco-system. People and the connections between them are the very essence of creative new business. My job in the Northern Ireland Science Park is to create sustainable “buzziness,” he adds. BDO started its series of industry reviews in October 2009 with the goal of highlighting the positive news from exemplary Northern Ireland companies that were being overshadowed in the media by negative business stories. “The outlook was very much one of doom and gloom,” says Reavey. “But there are sectors and companies that are continuing to do well, with a common thread of all being that they will continue to innovate. The opportunity to learn from these innovators will be critical to the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy.” Wrightbus in Ballymena is, for example, a place where everyone has responsibility for innovation - from workers on the shop floor, to those handling materials, to the sales force and senior management. This environment empowers employees to challenge the status quo if they see something can be done in a better way. BDO notes that in many organisations innovation can just as easily be applied to services. Bruce Robinson, Head of NI Civil Service is clear that there are many examples of this across the public service. “The challenge has been to achieve a step-change in the quality of service, which leads to improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. In some areas, this has seen a transformation in the delivery of service,” he says. Asidua’s Managing Director Steve Brankin says his company strives to make innovation central to every part of its organisation. “We innovate in everything we do: our products, our services, our management and our communications. People are instinctively innovative, the challenge is to bring this to a purpose,” he says. BDO believes that most important to all organisations is having a mindset of constant improvement. “Innovation is not just about a new product or a new market. It doesn’t have to be a big bang, it can be incremental,” says Michael McDonnell. “It is not about having a specific innovation team. You might have an R&D department if you’re big enough, but it is more about having a mindset of continuous improvement and enhancement. It is about continuing to challenge whether what we offer and how we offer it and who we offer it to is adding as much value as it could.” Reavey says that many companies in Northern Ireland have a product or service that is better than any other local offering, but not better than what’s available globally. It is becoming increasingly important that organisations start to think about their market on a global scale she believes. “Your capacity to export is intrinsically linked to the extent of innovation within your thinking or your actions within your organisation. If you are more innovative in your organisation you are more likely to be exporting,” she says. BDO itself believes it has a role to play throughout the innovation pipeline, from advice on tax, contracts and intellectual property protection to getting a business set up in the first place, Reavey adds. “I think we will be able to help clients to identify where the opportunities and need for innovation is in the business, into the process of service development, helping them identify market opportunity, the planning process, identify sources of funds, and potential strategic partners. We’ll also help them to establish if they have the wherewithal internally to exploit opportunities.” As an SME-based economy she notes that Northern Ireland is naturally a little more conservative and risk averse than economies with larger entrepreneurial businesses who have a greater capacity to take risks on new ideas. “Times are tight and when times are tight there’s a big emphasis on differentiation,” says Reavey. “The only way your going to get that is through innovation. The successes of the organisations featured in The Future of Innovation, drawn from the public and private sector, can certainly show us the way!”

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