SMEs as entrepreneurial agents in the Baltic Sea Region innovation ecosystem

Sari Stenvall-Virtanen
University of Turku

Taina Laiho
University of Turku

The Entrepreneurial discovery process (EDP) is an approach which is used to foster the involvement of the companies and other actors in the design, governance and implementation of public regional policies. In addition, this approach is adopted by the policy makers to manage their Regional Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3). According to recent studies there are three main aspects which define what EDP is about. Firstly, the EDP is an inclusive and interactive bottom-up process in which policy, business and academic partners are discovering potential of new activities and identifying potential opportunities. Secondly, the EDP pursues the integration of entrepreneurial knowledge fragmented and distributed over many sites and organisations, companies, universities, clients and users, specialised through the building of connections and partnerships. Thirdly, the EDP consists of the exploration and opening up of a new domain of technological and or market opportunities. (Smart Specialisation Platform,
In the EDP three types or classes of actors can be identified: entrepreneurial agents (companies, higher education institutions, research institutes and innovation agents) and policy makers and society in general. Entrepreneurial agents assume any form as each actor inevitably possesses insights, perspectives and knowledge that are derived from their unique experiences and positioning relative to the market and other actors, all of which may be usefully combined and related to develop a comprehensive knowledge base used to inform the RIS3 (Foray, 2014).
The EDP is a "conceptual pillar" of Smart Specialisation (Capello, 2014). This bottom-up approach in priority-setting is crucial to understand the main feature that distinguishes S3 approaches from previous innovation strategies. It has been argued that successful smart specialisation dynamics are rooted in an EDP. But the emphasis on the EDP as the main process for generating information to identify the limited set of research and innovation priorities required in a RIS3 means that the intervention that is required is not about telling the regions what to do, but about helping companies and entrepreneurs to discover what to do.
This paper highlights the potential of companies, especially SMEs as active entrepreneurial agents in the Baltic Sea Region by analysing research, development and innovation initiatives and challenges proposed by the companies. The paper utilises a pool of development challenges collected in the project Baltic TRAM, Transnational Research Access in Macro-region that was funded by the Interreg Baltic Sea Region programme from 1.3.2016 to 28.2.2019. During the project altogether 68 innovation challenges to solve specific company challenges were collected around the Baltic Sea Region via open company calls. In this paper the interaction between companies and universities in the framework of smart specialisation and building innovation driven-economies at regional level are analysed. The paper argues that such process to be successful certain framework conditions in the business-university cooperation need to be present. One of the key conditions seems to be the technology readiness level of the companies. Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) are indicators of the maturity level of particular technologies applied in companies. Universities and other analytical research facilities in regions can through dedicated collaboration processes support companies to overcome development challenges that are connected to advancing further to the consecutive stages of higher technology readiness levels and developing new commercial products that in turn positively affect the regional economy and innovation ecosystem.