The Innovation Exchange programme aims to connect large multinational businesses with indigenous Irish SME technology solution providers

Created by Furthr in partnership with Skillnet Ireland, the Innovation Exchange programme helps Irish SMEs to win new business from large companies. It does this by providing a structured matchmaking service, along with training, to provide the SMEs with the skills and capabilities required to pitch successfully to major corporates and build a qualified sales pipeline.

The programme is specifically aimed at accelerating digital transformation in large multinational businesses by connecting them with indigenous Irish SME technology solution providers.

“The premise for the Innovation Exchange is that, on the one hand, large companies need innovative solutions as they digitally transform while on the other there are Irish SMEs developing these solutions looking to sell to large corporates,” explains programme director Conor Carmody.

“The corporates are telling us they want to buy from SMEs but can’t find solutions in Ireland. The SMEs say they have the solutions but can’t get in to sell them to large companies. We are bringing them together and curating the process.”

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The corporates are telling us they want to buy from SMEs, but can’t find solutions in Ireland

Many leading companies have signed up for the Innovation Exchange, including Musgrave, Heineken, Ryanair, Glanbia, ESB, and AXA, while more than 200 SMEs have been involved. Launched in February 2022, the programme has had a number of successful outcomes, including 20 SMEs that have moved to a deeper engagement with a corporate partner, with one company announcing that it has signed a paid pilot. Several other SMEs are in proof-of-concept discussions, with a view to establishing longer-term collaborations.

“The starting point is that we on-board the large companies and ask them to set a challenge that if was solved would make their life easier,” Carmody points out. “We then host a webinar where the company describes the challenge and SMEs can ask questions to establish if it is something they can help with.

“The SMEs then put forward proposed solutions to us. We curate them and send them on to the company, which decides which ones they’d like to explore further. We bring the company together with the SMEs and hope that deal flow will build. We ran a pilot last year, and formally launched the programme in February of this year.”

It is far more than a business to business matchmaking service, however, according to Liz Thomas, head of strategic projects with Skillnet Ireland. “It has been a long-term challenge to bring these worlds together,” she says. “There have been lots of attempts but nothing that brings SMEs on the whole journey. There is a lot of cost involved in engaging with large companies.

“SMEs have got to get through a lengthy procurement process that can take up to two years. We looked at how we can get SMEs ready for that engagement and prepare them to work with big companies, by giving them the skills and capability to do it.”

Part of that preparation is to help SMEs understand what the corporates are looking for. “SMEs have to ask if this is the right challenge for them to solve,” Thomas adds. “They need to make sure their product or service is right for it and be able to say when it is not right. It’s not a spray-and-pray approach.”

Having established that a solution is a good fit, the SMEs go on to submit a written proposal. “This is typically just two pages,” says Thomas. “Corporate buyers only have so much time. We help them tailor the proposal to the company.

“After that, we prepare them for the ‘Dragon’s Den’ stage, which is a 30-minute session where they present for 15 minutes and get a real grilling from the company for the other 15 minutes. At the end of that, the SME hopefully moves on to a pilot, or even straight to a supply deal.”

We are preparing them to get the big deals, and to be ready to avail of opportunities when they come

Even when deals don’t materialise, the SMEs get feedback from the corporates which will help them in future. “That is hugely valuable,” Thomas points out. “They also learn from other businesses which are on the same journey.

“We are preparing them to get the big deals, and to be ready to avail of opportunities when they come. It’s not just training in isolation, it’s training while on the journey.”

“The Innovation Exchange has had a strong start and the calibre of both corporates and SMEs participating has been very high,” says Carmody. “We are delighted to open applications for new technology SMEs to join the programme.

“If you’re a growing, solutions-focused SME, then we would urge you to join the Innovation Exchange at a time when there are so many corporate challenges on the table. We have also onboarded IDA Ireland as a collaborator. This will potentially bring in a large number of IDA FDI clients as prospective partners. That could move us to a new level.”

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