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Most companies start off small. Siemens, for example, opened for business 170 years ago in a ten-man backyard workshop in Berlin. Today the technology giant is a global player with around 370,000 employees worldwide. Or take SAP: Europe’s largest software manufacturer was founded in 1972 by five former IBM employees in a small provincial town in Germany. Of course, not every small company becomes a major corporation. However, innovations can blossom just as easily – and perhaps even more easily – in smaller enterprises.
Knowledge sharing for new ideas
One powerful engine that sets innovations in motion is knowledge sharing between business enterprises and research institutions. The Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering in Stuttgart promotes knowledge sharing in a highly individual manner. "We use online tools to systematically trawl through scientific documents, research reports or university websites in search of new technologies, new fields of application and experts", reports Dr Antonino Ardilio. He heads the Technology Innovation Intelligence department. This research leads to technology and application "roadmaps" that companies can use in two ways: on the one hand, to identify those technologies best suited to a particular product application. And on the other, to discover new applications for existing technologies. In this way, a new market was found for components that had previously been used in the production of vehicle engines – namely the medical technology sector.
Researchers also learn from business
Dr Ardilio and his colleagues have observed that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have become more open to such cooperation in view of the rapid pace of technological change. Their "TechnologieRadar" and "MarktExplorer" products are now used by around ten companies each year. This also has benefits for the Fraunhofer scientists. "We learn what SMEs will need in future. And the solutions that we develop are in turn tried and tested in industry. This gives rise to a continual flow of knowledge", sums up the engineer and designer.
Facing up to global competition
Through the "Priority for SMEs" ten-point-programme ("Vorfahrt für den Mittelstand", only in German) it launched in 2016, the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) wants to encourage companies to invest more in research. The idea is to motivate small and medium-sized enterprises in particular to take advantage of research findings when developing their product innovations. After all, these companies are the engine that drives many national economies, including Germany’s. Around 70 percent of Germany’s workforce is employed by an SME. If these firms want to face up to the global competition, they need to be open to innovation.
Publicising research findings, not only in journals
The "Innovative University" programme ("Innovative Hochschule", only in German) is targeted at small and medium-sized universities that have good ideas for knowledge sharing. By 2027, Germany’s federal and state governments will be making up to 550 million euros available for the programme. 48 universities have received funding since 2017, including the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg (BTU) and Wildau Technical University of Applied Sciences (only in German). Together, they have set in motion the project Innovation Hub 13 (only in German). "We want not only to publish our research findings in journals, but also to ensure that they are used by business", is how Professor Katrin Salchert explains the idea behind the programme. She is the vice president for knowledge and technology transfer at the BTU.
Transfer scouts at universities communicate knowledge to companies
Both universities have already been collaborating with many local companies for some time. "However, we have found that there is still a glass wall between universities and businesses", says Salchert. The idea now is for transfer scouts to break through this wall. They are specially-trained employees who have the relevant academic background but are also able to communicate the knowledge generated at the university in such a way that companies can identify the potential it offers for product innovations. The Innovation Hub also features showrooms where the research findings are presented in a readily understandable manner. In addition, test beds are being set up that allow companies to test out new technologies – like 3D printers that use laser technology to produce complex components made of metal powder or plastic.
The two universities with a total of 12,000 students are situated in a region between Berlin and Dresden that is facing far-reaching changes. As yet, most people there work in the local mining and power plant industry. Coal is not an energy source with any future in Germany, however. The region is characterised by many small industrial firms and a handful of large-scale energy companies – if the former are to survive, they will need to come up with new ideas. And if the region’s universities not only train skilled professionals but also make their knowledge accessible, innovative companies will be tomorrow’s employers. This is precisely what Cottbus-based Professor Katrin Salchert sees as the role of the Innovation Hub 13: "We want to play our part in the structural transformation." This will also benefit the research institutions and scientists: the "Innovative University" programme has resulted in a large number of new jobs being created at universities and non-university research institutions.
The "Innovative University" initiative supports the transfer of ideas, knowledge and technologies from the research world to business. The programme launched by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research is aimed primarily at small and medium-sized universities. Funding is provided not only for projects in the field of technology; funding recipients also include an art and music university, as well as several universities of education.www.innovative-hochschule.de (only in German)