Enhance interaction between universities and SMEs to stimulate research and innovation

Per Lövsund
Chalmers University of Technology

Angela Hillemyr
Chalmers University of Technology

LinkedIn profile

Nikolaos Krikis
Noesis Technology

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Introduction and aim
Europe’s economy is to a great part based on SMEs (Small and Medium sized Enterprises). SMEs represent about 99% of all business in the EU. The European Commission considers SMEs and entrepreneurship as key to ensuring economic growth, innovation, job creation, and social integration. EU has many ways to support SMEs to be more innovative and competitive like e.g. the Open and Disruptive Innovation (ODI) scheme and the EIC Accelerator (SME Instrument) part of the European Innovation Council (EIC). These EU initiatives are fully in line with the view by Moeda (2018), who claimed that science and innovation are vital for the future of Europe and that there are three changes needed for the science and innovation landscape in the future. These are: (i) increase collaboration (ii) more work at the interaction of disciplines (iii) more disruptive innovation. Research and innovation are different activities, even if it is often still taken for granted that there will be innovations just because you invest in research (Hörstedt, 2019). To be more competitive and innovative SMEs should benefit of getting access to more advanced research.

SMEs usually don’t have research units of their own due to both financial and manning reasons. Advanced research has a great potential to be significantly increased by a larger amount of collaboration between HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) and SMEs.

To enhance the understanding about both obstacles and opportunities regarding collaborations between SMEs and HEIs the EU project Gienahs (Grasping Innovation in Europe through a closer iNterAction between HEIs and SMEs), www.gienahs.eu was initiated. Gienahs will facilitate for SMEs the improvement of research and internal skills to face innovation in a more structured and systematic way. Furthermore, Gienahs will also find ways for HEIs to improve their ability to interact with SMEs by both common research and education in general but particularly through industry PhD education. In this study (Gienahs, WP3) a specific aim was to propose strategies and methods for optimal long-term relations and collaborations including win-win situations for HEIs and SMEs (Hillemyr et al., 2015 and 2016; Lövsund et al., 2019).

Research methodology
A questionnaire was developed and sent to both HEIs and SMEs in each of the six partner countries. The HEIs and SMEs were chosen to get a good distribution over the respective countries, age and size of the companies, personal contacts and knowledge about possible ongoing HEI/SME collaborations.

The results are based on the responses from 37 HEIs and 73 SMEs and analyzed with the aid of the widely used and accepted model, in decision theory, the Weighted Sum Model (WSM) (Triantaphyllou, 2000). The results were mainly based on the questionnaires, but also to some extent by complementary interviews.
The results are to a great deal country specific with some few exceptions. Besides the fact that the data differs between the countries, there is also a variation within the countries. There might be several reasons for these differences, like e.g. already existing SME/HEI relations and collaborations, or if the university/department has a focus on applied or fundamental research.

Both similarities and dissimilarities were found in the answers from HEIs and SMEs, but there is a common view from both HEIs and SMEs that they are open to collaborations in order to create knowledge transfer in both directions. SMEs have an interest to invest in their staff competence, but the majority of the interviewed SMEs had not considered PhD programs. Based on this, it can be proposed to initiate extended networks and contacts to create relationship and successively start fruitful collaborations between HEIs and SMEs but hereby also enhance research competence. This could possibly be done by building a common European standard for interaction between HEIs and SMEs; by fostering a stronger collaboration between HEIs and SMEs through a new approach by using one or more methods such as:
1. Invite to “open houses”
2. Work with “match making”
3. Communication from HEIs about possibilities and competences
4. Newsletters with good examples
5. Education for specialists in industry (continued education for professionals)
Build and develop
1. SMEs get access to students, diploma thesis workers
2. SMEs and HEIs get access to infrastructure at the other side
3. SMEs are invited to seminars at HEIs
4. Research project collaborations, via seniors, diploma thesis workers and PhD students
5. Industrial PhD projects
6. Customized industrial PhD courses

A conclusion of this study is in line with the project goal to increase the innovation capacity in EU, and could general, be summarized by; university-industry collaboration is a win-win experience for both parties as well as society. It closes the gap between industry/SMEs and academia. A successful partnership involves strategies and goals for both HEIs and SMEs (industry) and for achieving an impact. Gienahs is building the foundation for this, which also is in line with Moeda (2018).