An examination of the attractiveness of university and corporate anchor tenants in the conception of a new cluster

Phil Tomlinson
University of Bath

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Felicia Fai
University of Bath

Christos Dimos
University of Bath

Introduction and aim
Anchor tenants can play a key role in the development of regions (Markusen, 1996) and are defined as organisations heavily engaged in R&D with the absorptive capacity to apply new knowledge and generate knowledge externalities within a particular (regional) technological field (Agrawal and Cockburn 2003; Niosi and Zhegu, 2010). Anchors can facilitate cluster dynamics by connecting actors both within and beyond a cluster. This network building is important for collaboration, knowledge transfer and creating value within the cluster through innovation and, crucially, enabling cluster-based firms to capture this value through exploiting new market opportunities (Bailey, 2018; Adner and Kapoor, 2010).
Studies of established regional technological clusters have long documented anchor tenants as significant factors in their growth and success. However, the potential presence of anchor tenants, perceptions about their expected benefits and hence role in the conception of a potential new cluster is unknown. Yet, the role of anchor tenants is becoming increasingly important within the context of nascent and emerging clusters precisely because an anchor can act as a magnet for attracting new investment in a cluster, as well as being critical players themselves in the nurturing of cluster specialisms in new technological fields (Braunenjelm and Feldman, 2006).
At least two categories of anchor tenants exist: public anchor tenants (research universities and public research organisations) and private anchor tenants (typically Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and/or multinational firms). However, their roles differ. Universities, for instance, may play a role as a public anchor through their ‘third mission’ (Laredo, 2007; Benneworth, 2018) especially with regard to promoting local growth (Goddard 2014). Corporate anchor tenants can bring forth opportunities for local firms to access the private anchor’s business networks - through their global value chains, for example (Chaminade and Vang, 2008). Yet, we know little about the relationship between the two types of anchor tenants within a single region, even though we know that mutual benefit in terms of innovation and productivity are gained from university researchers working with corporations. By examining established clusters, we tend to impose our ex-post understanding of the importance of anchor tenants onto the emerging stages or conception (pre-birth) of a new cluster (Niosi and Zhegu, 2010). As such, prescient knowledge of the importance of anchor tenants for cluster dynamics exists from a conceptual perspective. However, there is little empirical analysis of the ex-ante perception of their respective roles from firms that stand to benefit from their presence at the early stage of the cluster lifecycle. This makes it difficult for policy-makers to design appropriate policy initiatives in which public and private anchors are key contributors within new cluster formation and is the lacuna we seek to address.

Research methodology:
This study collected data with a survey of 1100 firms operating in the UK automotive and aerospace industries. The questionnaires sought information on each firm’s research and innovation capabilities, their interest in the URI and its proposed facilities, along with firms’ background information. Additionally, firms were asked whether their responses to the former would be enhanced with the involvement of a collocated OEM (as a private anchor tenant). We quantitatively examine the perceived respective roles of, and interplay between, public and private anchor tenants in cluster creation. Specifically, we identify some characteristics of the firms most likely to observe future potential benefits stemming from a) the presence of the public anchor alone, and b) a public anchor that has a research-based relationship with a co-located private anchor.

Results and implications
We find highly innovative, highly R&D intensive firms that are already embedded in knowledge and business networks, are the most likely to perceive benefits from, and therefore be attracted to, the anchor tenants in the potential cluster (although financial constraints may inhibit them from fully exploiting regional synergies with them). We also find the presence of a private anchor can amplify the attractiveness of the public anchor to firms and heighten the likelihood of a cluster emerging around the tenants.
We make three contributions to the literature. i) By exploring the different and complementary roles played by public and private anchor tenants in a cluster’s emergent stage, we highlight their dual roles as both ‘magnets’ for cluster formation and crucially as ‘bridges’ between knowledge and business networks so as to propagate value creation and facilitate value capture - a theoretical contribution. ii) Drawing upon a unique survey of firms in the UK automotive, and (technologically adjacent) aerospace sectors, we offer a unique exploratory case study of the attractiveness of both a new university research facility and a corporation as anchor tenants in the conception of a new cluster. We additionally explore whether attractiveness is amplified if the URI could form a direct relationship with a global OEM (acting as a private anchor tenant) in the emerging cluster. iii) through the case study, we offer a framework for policy-makers and both university and industrial managers, to identify and explore the different characteristics of firms that perceive the greatest benefits of, and are thus more likely to collaborate with, a new public anchor and enhance the cluster dynamic. These insights provide important indicators for policy design and implementation not only for the specific URI case, but also more generically in relation to the role of anchor tenants in the genesis of clusters.