Manufacturers behind the innovative dog water bowl and bullet-proof inflatable life jacket are among the 400 firms which have benefited from a link- up with Innovation Networks.

The Advantage West Midlands and ERDF-backed initiative, which encourages local businesses with complimentary expertise to work together, has pumped more than £1 million into the development of projects, products and services since 2002.

More than 125 networks have used the £10,000 grant to turn exciting ideas into commercial reality.

They include Firstbrook Engineering, based in Kingswinford, which launched the bowl and Englands, in Birmingham, securing a £250,000 deal with the Kuwaiti army for bullet-proof inflatable life jackets. More recently, Birmingham innovator Richard Taylor has used the support to develop a world-leading accessory for Lambretta Scooters.

Gill Roberts, project manager, said all companies, regardless of size, should be innovating to remain competitive.

She said: "Innovation isn't just about inventing totally new products. It also means challenging and improving the way your company works.

"In fact, it really just means doing things differently, by going beyond the limits of your current knowledge. We appreciate that finding the time and the money to develop new ideas can be a problem and is often a luxury only the larger companies can afford."

Innovation Networks has helped by providing funding and supporting collaboration between small groups of businesses that boast complementary skills and knowledge.

The costs of using consultants have also been supported where necessary, and academic institutions and research agencies have joined in with expertise to support specific projects.

Ms Roberts said: "We have been so successful that the project was extended and the allocation of available funding is now full.

"It has clearly shown that the appetite exists and that we need to continually develop new products and processes in order for the region to not only survive, but actually prosper.

"And for anyone who thinks innovation doesn't pay, recent research revealed companies who innovate are 80 per cent more profitable."