Commercial Review: New Development Agency Gets Ready to Invest in the Future; the Decision to Merge Northern Ireland's Economic Development Agencies Has Been Widely Welcomed. Invest NI Promises to Cut the Red Tape out of Business Support and Become More Proactive in Business Start-Ups. PAUL McKILLION Outlines the Draft Corporate Plan and Gets Reaction from Three Key Stakeholders in the Northern Ireland Economy

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Byline: Paul McKillion

A WEEK tomorrow will see the operational start to Invest NI - the ambitious new single economic development agency.

Staff working for the IDB, Ledu, IRTU, the Business Support Division of DETI and the tourist accommodation support functions of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, will be split into four areas: Innovation and Capability Development; Entrepreneurship and Enterprise; Business International and Corporate Services.

Last month Invest NI's chief executive designate Leslie Morrison revealed the agency's draft corporate plan for 2002-05.

``Innovation and entrepreneurship will continue the shift away from advisory and financing support for building capacity to that for building capability,'' said Mr Morrison.

``This is the best way to deploy Invest NI's resources in pursuit of quality growth and ever-higher competitiveness.''

The growth Invest NI wants to see is contained in a series of ``targets and deliverables'', first drawn up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for the Programme for Government.

They include:

n establishing 20 new or enhanced centres of research excellence by the end of 2004,

n stimulating a 25 per cent increase in private sector R&D in the next three years,

n achieving export sales growth in manufacturing companies of 10 per cent in real terms,

n establishing another two Technology and Development Centres in the US,

n achieving 4,500 new locally focussed start up businesses through the Invest NI/District Council Business Start Programme,

n assisting in the set up of 420 high tech/value added companies (120 of which will come from the research base)

n working with universities, FE colleges, district councils and the private sector to secure 60 externally-owned knowledge based investments.

Over 2,500 copies of the draft plan were distributed for consultation.

It contains the intention of Mr Morrison and the Invest NI board to reduce bureaucracy in its processes, offer a more responsive service to businesses and energise the SME sector by encouraging entrepreneurship and enterprise.

``We must recognise that Northern Ireland's inadequate business birth rate, if unaddressed, will hold back our economy's rates of innovation and wealth creation,'' said Mr Morrison.

``Existing businesses also need to be encouraged to widen their horizons, to develop external markets and to build scale. Invest NI will provide a range of advisory and benchmarking services that promote constant improvement in production processes, product development, marketing and corporate finance.''

A major factor in boosting the capability of start-up businesses to succeed is the provision of venture capital.

``We will be active in the formation of risk capital, and the methods chosen to measure its effectiveness must reflect the time needed for investments to mature and the likelihood that some failures will occur,'' says the draft plan.

Nigel Smyth, director of CBI Northern Ireland, welcomed the ``many positive aspects'' of the draft plan, but said that the critical assessment of its success would have to wait.

``The key question to ask 12 months down the line is has this made a difference?''

He added: ``The biggest challenge is operationalising what is actually in document and how will the new culture of the agency be developed to deliver what, I think is fair to say, the increased expectations from the private sector. …