Taking technological research to market

Technopole-transistores-web

Connecting academia and SMEs across Europe to drive economic growth

With Europe’s competitiveness in the global marketplace and its future economic growth relying on innovation in products, services and business models, KARIM, a pioneering transnational project for North-West Europe, was set up to help drive growth opportunities by promoting responsible innovation, facilitating transnational collaboration and improving small and medium sized enterprises’ (SME) access to high value innovation support.

A core focus of the three-year project was looking at how to unlock the market value of the vast amount of technological research and innovation being generated by Horizon 2020 – the EU’s largest ever research and innovation funding programme. While innovation pressures apply to all size companies, the SME sector is recognised as more receptive to innovation than larger multinationals and able to respond faster, making it better placed to drive innovation into the marketplace. A KARIM goal was therefore to find ways of overcoming geographic constraints so that the best Horizon 2020 research and innovation can be united with the SMEs best able to convert them into value for the European economy.  

Barriers to transnational relationships

The starting point for the KARIM project partners was to identify the obstacles to transnational collaboration between academia and SMEs.

With academia not by nature business-focused, innovation tends to be secondary to teaching and research, making the concept of technology transfer and commercialisation mechanisms a relatively new one. In response to efforts by governments and European bodies to optimise the value of their investment in science, technology and research, universities are now beginning to appoint Business Development Managers (BDMs), who are tasked with taking research to market. The KARIM partners established that in practice, the BDM role as it currently stands was not an effective way of facilitating optimum academia/SME connections: firstly because BDMs have varying remits, ranging from outreach and engagement to opportunity identification and commercialisation; and secondly because they tend to be geographically limited to a local, regional or national focus.

For SMEs, the obstacles are different. Although they recognise that open innovation is a key enabler, limited resources prevent them from looking across a wide geographical area to access the best sources of research.

The partners also identified that whilst academic researchers are keen to be first to disclose and publish their results, industry is based on intellectual property and confidential know-how, creating a trust barrier between the two.

Overcoming the challenges

It was evident to the KARIM partners that there was a need for a new type of bridging role between academia and SMEs. Based on outcomes from extensive projects and activities, the partners determined that having a network-based BDM with a transnational remit would be the most effective way of transcending the barriers and brokering mutually valuable partnerships.

The transnational BDM network concept was the first of its kind, with KARIM initially trialling different models to find the most successful processes. The partners then set up a pilot project and tested it in practice.

KARIM’s transnational BDM network comprised six BDMs with expertise in a range of areas and existing links with a range of companies. Based in France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, the BDMs were co-located at universities and a government agency.

How the model worked

To address the challenge for a BDM of widening localised networks and achieving a transnational reach, the partners created small networks of academics and companies with a particular focus. These were deliberately kept small to enable trust to build rapidly and became known as ‘trust networks’. The BDM’s role was to identify the right SMEs to take research to market rather than opting for the closest match, with personal referrals and recommendations by network members enabling introductions between the universities and the SMEs.

The next step was to scale up these trust networks in a way that increased networking opportunities but retained established close links. This was done by creating small sub networks, where key people overlap. These enabled introductions to be brokered across further trusted networks encompassing a wider geographic area, with the ultimate aim of them all linking together to create a large transnational network.

The benefits in practice

Ireland-based SME TelLab had been developing new environmental diagnostic devices and tools for mass-market distribution in parallel with its core chemical monitoring, analysis and treatment business. In 2012, the company launched a new monitoring product for the wastewater and drinking water markets and was approached by the BDM at University College Dublin (UCD) – a member of KARIM’s transnational BDM network – with a view to the pilot project helping with product development and growth.

TelLab’s involvement opened up both product development and transnational networking opportunities. The relationship with UCD has led to a mechanical engineering internship at the company for six months and submission of a Horizon 2020 proposal in partnership with the university. It also enabled an introduction to academics from Lancaster University at a meeting in Paris, with the subsequent collaborative relationship that developed delivering a host of benefits for TelLab as well as the university. These include a hot desk at the university-based Lancaster Environment Centre’s (LEC) co-location facility; acting as industrial partner in an upcoming CASE PhD; participation in a Catalyst project; and working on two Horizon 2020 proposals with LEC. The current projects will run for two to three years with a view to developing new commercial products.

One of the outcomes of knowledge exchange across the transnational network was production of a market foresight report on microinjection moulding technology by the KARIM project partners, which TelLab is currently using to inform its market development strategy. Set against the background of increasing interest in micro manufacturing technology, the report spans enabling technologies, materials, production challenges, markets and market drivers.

Moving forward

KARIM’s transnational BDM network clearly demonstrates a practical route for bridging the gulf between SMEs and universities. The collaborations that it established are self-sustaining and likely to endure, and the new research and funding opportunities that it generated are delivering tangible all round benefits.

An issue that remained unresolved, however, is SMEs inherently lack internal resources to build these crucial networks. Equally, universities rarely have an international outreach function for promoting technology or identifying opportunities. This highlighted that continuing external support is vital to enabling important networks of this kind to get off the ground and develop sustainably.

One of the challenges for doing so is that most funding for traditional BDMs is on a national or local region level, making it difficult to for them to justify dedicating any or all of their time to engaging with overseas SMEs. An added problem is that one region may be willing to contribute funds to support transnational collaboration whilst another might not, due to constraints on how local taxpayers money can be spent. KARIM’s clear conclusion was that pan-European funding agencies, including INTERREG and the European Commission, and their various funding instruments, such as Horizon 2020, need to specifically address this issue. An effective way of doing this would be to allocate a small portion of the budget for all funded projects that are open to SMEs and research organisations.

Knowledge from the pilot project now needs to be disseminated across Europe to help optimise Horizon 2020. The universities and organisations that have trialled the model will continue to work this way and what is needed now is for others to recognise its value and embed the same approach. KARIM’s strong message in this respect is that if North West Europe wants to become more competitive, notably by increasing the competitiveness of its SMEs, then it is in the interests of the region as a whole to put funding mechanisms for establishing transnational networks very firmly on the agenda.

ABOUT KARIM  

KARIM is the Knowledge Acceleration and Responsible Innovation Meta-network, a European project that aimed to develop transnational connections between universities, innovation support agencies and SMEs, with a focus on responsible innovation.

Funded through the INTERREG IVB North-West Europe strategic initiatives programme, KARIM brought together nine project partners from seven countries.

The partners’ overall objectives were to create transnational support for innovation and technology transfer, provide SMEs with access to a wider range of high quality technologies and innovation support, increase the capacity of SMEs and universities to collaborate transnationally and reduce regional disparities in these areas.

KARIM ran from April 2011 to December 2014, with insights, best practice findings and recommendations going forward now being disseminated across the region.

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