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Protecting our vulnerable startups and SMEs is now more vital than ever

There is a popular trope in the narrative surrounding the origins of a successful enterprise, usually centring around working from a back bedroom, the kitchen table or from the garden shed.

But the truth about successful start-ups and SMEs is usually a lot more prosaic.

On top of a great idea and business plan, there is hard work, long hours and a base from which to grow your business.

And for more than 2,000 Irish start-ups and SMEs around the country, those bases have been enterprise centres, either publicly funded or privately run, that offer the first site of operations and incubate Irish firms.

Founders take their first steps with desk and office space in these centres and embark on their entrepreneurial journey surrounded by a network of others facing the same challenges. The centres vary from simple networked office space to those offering a full suite of complementary supports for founders, such as funding pathway supports and structured mentoring and networking.

Those firms may grow into High Potential Start-Ups and scale to enterprise level, or they may remain as micro or SME ventures. All these firms have two things in common: they create real, local jobs and generate wealth around the regions.

But just as Covid-19 has sent thousands in mainstream work back to their kitchen tables to work, it has crippled the ecosystem that grows our grass-root businesses.

New ventures are not cash-rich, and the health and safety protocols are leaving enterprise centres with shortfalls in client rents or unable to meet the capital expenditure for PPE modifications or AV upgrades, for example.

These issues are why Enterprise Ireland, as announced by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar earlier last week, has launched the €12m Enterprise Centre Fund. We are moving to secure the ecosystem with grant aid of between €10,000 and €150,000 for enterprise centres. The grants will meet up to 80pc of costs for a business plan detailing how they will meet the challenges of the next 12 months. And, it is not just fixed costs or capital expenditure; the fund has provision to meet some salary costs for the year ahead.

It is a crucial plank in our strategy to safeguard the grassroots of the economy, and enterprise centres play a pivotal role. There are around 180 enterprise centres around Ireland, with some two-thirds being not-for-profit and grant-aided. Some are embedded in third-level educational institutions, and the remainder are privately run. We would expect the successful enterprise centre applicants to embrace the potential to develop new services or working environments for their client companies caused by the Covid disruption. We would advise the first port of call for an enterprise centre manager to meet with Enterprise Ireland to assess their needs on the funding pathway.

Let there be no mistake; the economic costs of Covid are real. The recession experienced by our nearest neighbour and trading partner, the UK, is the worst since records began.

Our enterprise centres are the bases for thousands of jobs in Ireland. While we don’t measure their success on their ability to nurture unicorn companies, we acknowledge they are a vital part of our grassroots infrastructure. And together with the IDA, the Local Enterprise Office network and agencies like Western Development Commission, Enterprise Ireland and its statutory partners strive to ensure balanced, regional development. Ultimately, it is regional development that creates a long-term sustainable economy.

Covid restrictions have invariably brought about conversations regarding the way we think about work, commuting and sustainability. The pandemic has also brought an opportunity to rethink parts of the economic ecosystem.

Will enterprise centres use the fund just to survive or to thrive? What we know is that Irish innovation will find new ways of work, new ways of networking and new ways of doing business.

It is up to us to support it.

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