The Northern Ireland Science Park will provide the setting for a programme - founded in California - aimed at aiding Ulster's entrepreneurs. Clare Weir hears what it involves
From San Diego to the Science Park in Belfast's Titanic Quarter, it's a business model which has reaped rich rewards in the USA - and is now helping technology start-ups from Northern Ireland get onto a strong business footing.
Springboard, run by the Northern Ireland Science Park's CONNECT programme for entrepreneurs, is modelled on the successful programme of the same name in California and offers new companies operating within the life sciences, clean-tech, hi-tech and digital media and software sectors free coaching and support.
Companies accepted into the programme spend six to 12 weeks in coaching sessions with the Northern Ireland Science Park's team of entrepreneurs and executives before making a presentation of their business model to a group of experts relevant to the specific business.
The audience will usually include a venture capitalist, an experienced entrepreneur, an accountant, a corporate lawyer, potential clients, intellectual property experts and marketing professionals who then offer feedback.
From there, the entrepreneur will continue to work with their appointed mentor on a development plan for the next six to twelve months.
One of the business mentors taking part in the programme is Dick Milliken. The retired Bangor man said that now is perhaps the most challenging time ever for budding entrepreneurs because of the global financial downturn and insecurity in the job market, and Springboard can help support those willing to take a step into the unknown.
"I am a chartered accountant by trade, I spent time in corporate banking, general marketing and industry," he said.
"I am a non-executive member of the Northern Ireland Science Park and I lived and worked in Northern Ireland for a long time, so I wanted to put something back into the business world.
"The biggest challenge as I see it is the uncertainty at the moment. When the job market was buoyant, more people would have been prepared to take a chance on an idea, knowing that if it did not work out by a year or two, they could get another job.
"However now, if you are in your mid to late 30s, you have a home, a spouse, a couple of kids, you will find it very hard to step away from a job, it is safer to stay where you are and keep your job rather than take a chance to live the dream and it all ends in tears.
"Our job as advisers on a programme like Springboard is to provide supportive infrastructure so that people feel that they can take that step.
"I suppose the first thing we do is offer a dose of realism.
"We are introduced, we talk, we may challenge some of their assumptions and point out alternative options.
"I can give personal advice about cashflows and funding. But a huge part of the mentoring process is encouraging and teaching the entrepreneurs on how to tell their stories properly.
"These are scientific, hi-tech companies and sometimes they can get so caught up and excited about the science, they forget to tell potential investors how the idea will actually make money."
Mr Milliken said that part of the mentoring process can resemble a "mauling" - but only to save it from happening in a real presentation.
"We do warn the entrepreneurs about the pitfalls," he said.
"All too often a great idea is taken to investors and when important questions are posed, the whole thing falls apart. We get five or six people in a room with the person, we talk about marketing, we talk about storytelling and we talk about cash, sometimes we have to knock the idea right down and build it up again.
"It is a bit like taking a clever idea and challenging it and spinning it a bit like Alastair Campbell.
"We have to find the weaknesses and we have to do a bit of mauling so that when they do go in front of funders, they are well prepared and can answer any queries. There is no point knowing the technology inside out, but not being able to answer any questions.
"We do often send people out for six or nine months to work on perhaps four points before we see them again. We need them to be able to prove to us that the product will work before they go out and start to try and get funding.
"It might sound tough, but in this way I believe we are going to build stronger businesses for the future."
One company that has benefited from the scheme - and Mr Milliken's expertise - is Carritech Research Ltd.
The Belfast-based biosciences company has identified a way to incorporate essential nutrients like Vitamin C and Omega 3 oil into snacks.
The firm enables crunchy and chewy materials to be produced at low temperatures, thereby preserving the properties of sensitive ingredients.
Carritech was formed in Northern Ireland in April 2009 and its founder, Yorkshireman Dr Richard Horton, invested years researching in conjunction with Colleg of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise's Loughry Campus and with support from Invest Northern Ireland.
Carritech offers its technology via licences and research and development contracts aimed at leading companies in the food, nutrition, medical, animal food, veterinary and related sectors.
"Eventually we want to be aiming this idea at big, tier 1 companies like Nestle, Glaxo Smyth Kline, and Kellogg's," he said.
"Our technology incorporates nutrients, which traditionally get destroyed by the high heats used in the baking process, into foods with a honeycomb texture.
"There is huge potential over many sectors on a global scale. The global food shortage, the ageing population, the obesity crisis, weight management - long-term, we could look at incorporating our technology in pet foods and medicine.
"Basically, lots of kids won't want to eat green vegetables, but our technology allows Vitamin C to be incorporated in a breakfast cereal or snack. An older person might not want to eat oily fish, but they could get their Omega 3 from a biscuit they could eat with their cup of tea.
"There are a lot of applications and very strong export potential," said Dr Horton.
"We were part of a pilot process with Springboard and the help we got from Dick Milliken and others has been invaluable.
"I have a strong business background, I applied for the patent for the idea and formed the company in April 2009, but I had no relevant experience with sourcing funding, working with advisers, making a pitch."
He went on: "For an idea like mine, intellectual property is a huge issue and Dick - who has know how in the pharmaceutical industry - and the Science Park's chief executive Dr Normal Apsley - who is something of an intellectual property guru - were very helpful to have through that process. The patent took almost three years to come through and we are only now able to go out and start talking to major companies about the technology, since it was approved in September. It is an enormous part of the process.
"The process can also be challenging for the mentors - it is good to share experiences. They don't do our jobs for us, they can only take the process from one step to the next, and that step for us now is to source seed funding, but that additional support when you are starting off is invaluable. I know about science and I know about research and am from a commercial background, but I am not a financial expert.
"There are a lot of pitfalls and setbacks when you are trying to set up a new business, but the help of Springboard and the Northern Ireland Science Park as a whole, it can be made a whole lot easier," he said.
Companies lining up to take part in programme
Launched in September by CONNECT, the Northern Ireland Science Park's entrepreneurship acceleration programme, Springboard, is a flagship scheme offering "bespoke mentoring" to science and technology start-ups.
There are already 20 new firms signed up to the programme.
Backed by a panel of experienced entrepreneurs and executives, Springboard offers coaching to companies and innovators with the potential to achieve £10m to £100m turnover within five to 10 years.
Joanne Jennings, programme manager for Springboard, said it is a "unique business creation programme".
"It offers invaluable access to a panel of seasoned experts, who will offer free advice on business and financial models, marketing plans, projections, intellectual property matters, due diligence and financing," she said.
"This broad diversity of feedback is critical for entrepreneurs considering how to commercialise potentially disruptive technology. Through such business model testing and refinement, we expect to fast-track more successful innovation entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland," she added.
Helping growing firms to connect with their potential
NISP Connect is an independent, nonprofit-making organisation fostering entrepreneurship by accelerating the growth of promising technologies and early stage companies.
A collaboration between Northern Ireland Science Park (NISP), the University of Ulster, Queen’s University, Belfast and Agri-Food Bioscience Institute, NISP Connect acts as an ‘honest, neutral broker’ within the Northern Ireland region through provision of direct delivery programmes, mentorship/coaching services, educational seminars and events geared at developing and encouraging entrepreneurial ideas, talent and leadership.
NISP Connect is part financed by the European Regional Development Fund under the European Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland 2007-2013.