Belfast Telegraph

The Belfast Telegraph Business Awards: Help for the little man

Supporting small firms is central to our ethos, says Alastair Hamilton, CEO at Invest NI, sponsor of the Best SME category in this year's Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in association with British Airways

This year Invest NI is sponsoring the Best SME category in the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards. That may seem odd to those whose perception is that the agency is only interested in big businesses, overseas investors and hi-tech companies.

But that is far from true. We recognise that small businesses are the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy and that they will play a vital role in rebuilding and rebalancing it – the twin objectives of the economic strategy.

In fact, over the last three years 90% of our offers of support have been to locally owned SMEs. That support covers a broad range of areas from help with exporting to improving efficiency.

We have also introduced new measures that are particularly targeted at small businesses. These aim to support skills development, funding for growth, research and development and overall business performance.

For example, our skills accelerator grant offers 50% support up to a maximum of £10,000 to SMEs undertaking training. The grant can be used for costs such as training, travel and accommodation, and will help ensure that small businesses have the skills they need to grow and succeed.

Through our access to finance strategy, we've made it easier for small businesses to get funding to help them grow.

We've set up five funds totalling over £140m. Two of these funds are particularly aimed at small businesses. Co-Fund NI provides equity funding to early stage, high growth SMEs, while the Small Business Loan Fund provides loans to small companies and social enterprises. To date, 24 Co-Fund deals have been completed and 45 Small Business Loans approved.

We've also introduced a finance voucher which gives SMEs up to £4,000 to employ a consultant to help them develop a professional funding proposal.

Encouraging businesses to carry out research and development remains one of our priorities but we are aware that SMEs may find it difficult to dedicate resources to it. To help, we can offer up to £50,000 of support to develop and test a prototype, refine it and deal with intellectual property issues.

Over the last three years, our innovation voucher scheme has also helped 680 SMEs to carry out projects to improve or develop products and processes.

Through our Boosting Business campaign, we have built awareness across Northern Ireland of the wide range of support available to SMEs.

Since its launch in 2011, we've received over 26,000 enquiries and welcomed 13,500 people to conferences, seminars and workshops covering business direction, research and development, design, performance management, recruitment and selection, lean processes, export skills and entrepreneurship.

We need to ensure that our support has the maximum impact on economic growth and so, as one of the pre-requisites for economic growth is increasing export levels, we focus our financial assistance on those companies that are exporting or are planning to export.

But we provide practical advice to all companies to help them begin or increase export activity, including running seminars on how to get export ready.

We are beginning to see encouraging signs of growth in our economy and that will be fuelled by the success of our SMEs which make up 99% of all Northern Ireland businesses. Invest NI will continue to support them.

For find out more about help and advice available to SMEs, contact Invest NI on 0800 181 4422.

We are starting to see growth in our economy and that will be fuelled by SMEs so Invest NI will support them...

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