West Midland firms have been handed £120,000 and help from one of the region's universities in order to boost their business.

Forty small and medium businesses each won £3,000-worth of innovation vouchers to spend with Higher Education Institutions in the region on developing their company.

The INDEX - Innovation Delivers Expansion - project is the first of its kind in the UK and was open to companies with up to 250 employees. It is being coordinated by Dr Judy Scully of Aston Business School in Birmingham.

Bosses gathered with university academics for a celebration breakfast hosted by ITV Central News presenter Llewela Bailey.

There were more than 200 applications for the funding, from which the 40 successful firms were chosen at random.

A further 40 will benefit in the next round of the £250,000 project, with applications opening in April 2008.

Amongst the winners was TJ Composting, which diverts green waste from landfill by working with local authorities and waste management companies to provide sustainable solutions.

The firm currently composts 55,000 tonnes of material each year across the UK and has bases in Warwickshire, Essex, Sussex, Kent and Hampshire.

The £3,000 voucher will go towards developing their range of compost products even further and to help it sell to individuals alongside its existing commercial market.

Chairman Petra Johnston said: "Our market historically has been local authorities and their contractors because we are diverting green waste from landfill. But the finished compost product is mainly sold to the landscape and construction markets, farms and horticultural businesses."

The company produces three main grades of compost for agriculture, landscape and horticulture.

Waste is shredded and a stimulant enzyme is added. The mixture is then turned regularly under British Standard PAS 100, until it is ready to be sold.

Ms Johnston said: "I would like to develop into the retail market through the INDEX scheme so that individuals can buy our products."

Another winner was Stratford-based Key Traffic Systems, which produces the software that designs all road signs in the UK.

The business has developed a range of ten traffic management programmes that are used by local authorities across Britain. Now it hopes the voucher will help them produce a software model for the posts that hold the signs.

Director Jeremy Ellis said the system for putting poles into the ground was currently quite random and he was keen to improve it.

He said:"At the moment engineers do the work based on what they see at the site, but we want to be able to offer software to take care of the civil engineering side of things beforehand.

"I think it is too early to say how good this voucher will be but we are really running into brick walls at the moment trying to source a civil engineer ourselves.

"This scheme is a very good mechanism to take our idea forward."

Other companies to receive funding in this round include Birmingham-based English language school 2nd City Academy; Electric Lemon Design from Solihull; Bridgnorthbased fuel injection throttle body manufacturer Jenveydynamics and internet site developer Sandford Technology from Wolverhampton.

John Bailey, pro-vice chancellor for information transfer at Aston Business School, said when the idea for the INDEX project was devised, no one could have imagined the response it received.

He said: "We wanted to find a way that enabled SMEs to define their needs - it was their agenda we were interested in rather than the university's."

Julia King, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University which co-ordinated the INDEX scheme, told the breakfast: "This is an opportunity to celebrate this new type of relationship between SMEs and universities, which we hope will be fruitful and will grow.

"You are the first of what we hope is going to be a big national initiative and we believe this scheme will serve to address some of the issues SMEs have raised about approaching Higher Education Institutions for help."

INDEX is funded by regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, the Economic & Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The voucher will allow companies to work with their chosen university to develop an innovative project, aimed at driving their business forward.