Engaging SMEs with Europe-wide student research and development resources
With technological innovation vital to Europe’s economic growth, KARIM, a pioneering transnational European project for responsible innovation and technology transfer, was set up to help north west Europe become more competitive and boost growth opportunities.
SMEs are recognised as being more receptive to innovation than larger organisations and able to respond to opportunities faster. This makes them central to driving innovation into the marketplace and in turn stimulating regional growth, however they are often held back by inherent limited internal and local resources. As part of the three-year KARIM project, the partners worked to identify the best ways of engaging north west Europe’s SMEs with the wealth of cross-region student resource expertise available, to help them overcome these limitations.
The focus was on a transnational student placement programme designed to enable SMEs throughout the region to access vital high calibre research and development support as well as new knowledge and skill sets. The programme specifically addressed innovative companies that were looking at new technologies and processes that could be expanded in their own market as well as across and beyond Europe.
Challenges to engagement
The traditional approach within academic institutions is for students to work on longer-term projects of six months to a year with companies based in their local area or country and in some cases to be paid at least the minimum wage for doing so. The KARIM partners expected this approach to continue within a transnational context, however barriers to uptake by both SMEs and students quickly became apparent. It emerged that making payment to students was not necessarily common practice for SMEs throughout Europe, with those in the UK, for example, considering the placement in itself to be sufficient payment and expecting universities to meet the cost through ERDF funding. Students also had their own set of concerns. Unlike working on projects for known local or regional SMEs, many saw long-term placement with an unknown transnational company as a risk to their final degree grades as they had no certainty the projects would fit with their course requirements. This particularly concerned those paying their own university fees and they were therefore unwilling to take such a perceived high risk. In addition, students were reluctant to travel alone to an unfamiliar location for project meetings where language barriers might hamper effective communication. Neither concern posed a problem for students within their own national borders.
Addressing the challenges
The obstacles to engagement on both sides prompted the KARIM partners to also introduce short term placement projects into their trials, looking at how they could best be structured to deliver value for SMEs and students whilst overcoming student concerns. Through a series of activities, including partnering events and on-going evaluation, the partners identified a model that offered a low risk way for SMEs to look outside their region for the expertise they need and a low risk route for students to engage with them.
The model involved several approaches around tightly defined SME projects that could be delivered within a short period of time, usually up to two weeks. Placements were unpaid and were outside of the academic timetable, or carried less weight in terms of degree grade assessment. Facilitated through university Business Development Managers to ensure an effective, mutually beneficial match between student expertise and SME needs, it comprised a blended approach of teaching and application. Before meeting interested SMEs, larger groups of students attended intensive lectures on areas relevant to particular SME needs, such as responsible innovation. This was followed by a transnational one-day ice-breaking session where groups of 2-3 students travelled to meet and work with SMEs to jointly develop the project scope and agree milestones and deliverables. Alternatively students could agree the scope as well as gain company insight by visiting the SMEs’ premises themselves. In both cases, students then returned home and completed their projects remotely with support from their university.
With students also travelling together in pairs or small groups and working individually on related projects for a single SME or together for the same SME, their concerns about travelling alone were overcome and they were able to help each other if they had language uncertainties. Given the short time period, remote working factor and extra curricular basis, all of which removed the perceived risk to degree grades, students were happy to undertake unpaid work, seeing it as an asset to their CV and an opportunity to enhance their business and market knowledge.
For SMEs, there was significant value in students introducing new ideas and information as well as progressing areas where they lacked the resources to do so themselves. More advanced masters or PhD students were particularly highly valued for their ability to investigate new potential markets and bring a different perspective to the business.
A case in point is two UK environmental management graduate students who carried out a two-week placement with twinned French companies specialising in the production of plastic products. The well-defined project comprised evaluation of the companies’ waste and utilities management baseline position as part of a drive to improve their environmental strategies and gain an ISO 14001 environmental management accreditation. Travelling together, the students visited the companies’ main facility to gain an understanding of operations and assess current environmental practices, and then returned to the UK where they completed their reports, and then returned to the companies to present their findings.
The reports included a number of recommendations, which the companies subsequently implemented. This resulted in reduced costs, increased efficiencies and lower environmental impacts, making the project very valuable for all parties.
Ultimately, the KARIM partners recognised that both long and short term projects yield benefits. However where risks and costs are high to students and SMEs, the short term model proved to be a mutually advantageous solution that delivers rapid value, encouraging SMEs to look outside their region for expertise that supports their business growth and innovation.
On this basis, the KARIM partners strongly recommend that future student placement programmes such as Erasmus also adopt this shorter-term model to enable wider dissemination of its positive outcomes as well as on long-term individual placements.
With no current funding mechanism in place to support the travel costs of transnational student projects, they also advocate the provision of a flexible funding stream, such as under Horizon 2020, to allow universities to offer transnational SME-led projects of this kind on a regular basis to their graduates.
A final key recommendation is for a bridging role within universities and support agencies to help ensure the best match between students and SMEs and to make certain of a project that is tightly defined and deliverable in a short time period.