What is the SME Engagement & Innovation Program?
In November 2023, the Steel Research Hub launched a dedicated program aimed at growing a network of resilient, innovative SMEs operating within the steel supply chain.
Under the Hub’s overarching Research Program 4 Steel Supply Chain Transformation, this program will enable subsidised engagement between steel industry technologists and university researchers skilled in leading-edge enabling technologies.
To achieve the overarching goal of creating and nurturing an environment for the transformational shift required and bridging the gap between current business conditions and future aspirational objectives – the Steel Research Hub has set aside matched funding to support cost-effective and de-risked R&D activities.
The purpose of this funding to allow accessing or co-creating specialised research knowledge and develop new ideas and solutions aligned with the specific SME’s business needs.
With the support of key industry peak bodies (Australian Steel Institute, Australian Industry Group, Weld Australia, National Association of Steel-framed Housing) and larger steel organisations collaborating with the Steel Research Hub (Chess Engineering, BlueScope Steel, Infrabuild) – the program provides supported opportunities for smaller organisations operating within the steel supply chain to pursue their business innovation needs with Australian universities; thereby showcasing the possibilities and capability represented through advanced manufacturing, enabling technologies and innovative culture.
An information flyer has been distributed through our partner networks to raise awareness of the program and its potential benefits. This communication is an open invitation for interested SMEs is to make contact with the Steel Research Hub as a first step to exploring what could be achieved with a university partnership under the program.
How will the program operate?
The program has been designed to respond to the needs and priorities of SMEs. In recognition that this will vary, as a first step, interested SMEs are encouraged to contact staff from the Steel Research Hub and make an appointment for a no-obligation and confidential conversation.
During this conversation exploring what might be possible to achieve will be the focus, along with an introduction to how the collaboration process works and important considerations for developing a collaborative project such as:
- Protecting the Intellectual Property (IP) of projects and the use of Confidentiality Agreements
- The nuts and bolts of industry research engagement, such as what it involves and the potential benefits for SMEs
Following an initial exploratory conversation, a range of other activities are available to help SMEs who are interested to take the next step determine what sort of project would best meet their needs. This may be helpful for beginning to scope or define desired priorities and goals for a collaborative project and identify the required resources.
With no set outcome in mind, possible activities could include:
- Generator Lab, this is a UOW event-based platform that encourages the development of new processes and capabilities through a collaborative process with steel industry stakeholders as a way to solve defined innovation problems.
- Bespoke tours to UOW facilities and equipment. Arrangements would be made for SMEs to meet steel-related experts and explore first-hand what specialised equipment or facilities may be available.
- Invite steel research experts to visit the business premises of interested SMEs for a detailed conversation of individual business needs.
- A partnership could include the goal of accessing expert advice from steel researchers to find out what cutting-edge knowledge could be available, and the potential application of this to fulfilling business innovation needs.
What does the Program involve
Eventual projects will be mutually determined between the SME and relevant researchers who will work together to scope, and then execute, a defined project aligned with industry needs. In carefully defining the roles and responsibilities of each party to the project, the parameters of the collaboration will be developed into a project agreement that is signed by all parties.
There is no standard project mould to adhere to. A range of collaboration mechanisms can be adopted, such as:
- Developing new or improved steel processes or products
- Use of, or access to, university-owned equipment, facilities or infrastructure
- Expert advice based on cutting-edge research knowledge
- Student internships, such as through the APR Intern scheme
Additional information to take into account:
Participation in the project is best suited to SMEs that are open to exploring their R&D or innovation needs through a formalised partnership with university researchers.
There are no eligibility criteria, although organisations must be a small to medium-sized enterprise that is interested in or already operating within the Australian steel supply chain.
While the program has no end date, funding is limited and will be expended within the term of the Steel Research Hub (2021-2026).
Project duration is flexible and individually tailored. Short- and medium-term projects would align best with the quantum of funding available. Projects may be as short as one week or be substantially longer. Project duration is to be tailored to the problem being addressed and the developed scope.
This scheme is best suited to seeding, or small-scale, projects with an indicative total value between $20,000 and $50,000. Project costs will be shared equally between SME and the program.
The specific topic to be explored through university collaboration is to be developed during targeted and confidential discussion with staff from the Steel Research Hub and the University of Wollongong. Having some ideas of potential collaboration areas is useful prior to making contact with Hub staff, but not essential at the outset.