Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Norbert Höptner talks to TRANSFER magazine about European funding and how Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum helps SMEs navigate their way through different authorities. He also looks at the challenges SMEs can expect to face in the future at an international level.
Professor Höptner, Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (SEZ) was founded over 25 years ago – the first Commissioner for Europe traveled off to Brussels to introduce small and medium-sized enterprises to European funding programs and thus get them more involved in innovation partnerships in Europe. How has the EU funding landscape changed since then?
European collaboration has become increasingly important over the last quarter of a century. When SEZ was founded by the Commissioner for Europe in 1990, there was the 2nd Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development – FP2 – offering funding worth €5.4 billion for four years. This was followed by FP3 with €6.6 billion of funding. Now there’s the Horizon 2020 program with over €80 billion for the seven years from 2014 to 2020. Funding is provided for research and innovation projects as well as related activities. The European Commission has also worked continuously over the years to improve conditions for small and medium-sized enterprises. For example, under Horizon 2020, for the first time there’s an SME instrument focused exclusively on SMEs and this also makes it possible to submit proposals without even finding a partner. This makes it much easier to access EU research funding for SMEs.
You were well connected with other European institutions, even at the beginning. Which ones are now your most important partners?
The first one I would name is the Enterprise Europe Network. It’s the largest network for transnational technology transfer, with just under 600 partner organizations in over 50 countries throughout the world. Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum was already involved with its predecessor networks, the Innovation Relay Centre (1995-2007) and the Value Relay Centre network (1993-1995). This network has also expanded and built on synergies with other networks, so now the Enterprise Europe Network is the central point of contact when it comes to funding innovation, market launches in Europe, EU guidelines, and technology transfer. Other important European networks we collaborate with are the Global Practitioners Network for Competitiveness, Clusters and Innovation, Technology.Transfer.Application. TRANSFER 01|2016 7 Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Norbert Höptner is director of Steinbeis- Europa-Zentrum (SEZ). SEZ was founded in 1990 under the initiative of the Commissioner for Europe of the Minister for Economics in the state of Baden- Württemberg. Its task is to make it easier for companies to reach out to Brussels. SEZ also acts as an EU advice center, not just for small and medium-sized enterprises but also for universities in Baden-Württemberg. Image: c Europaische Kommission Technology Innovation International, and the European Cluster Alliance.
In what ways have the support services provided by SEZ to innovative companies changed?
We still support companies, universities, and research bodies with the submission of proposals under European research and innovation programs. To move forward with innovations, we also do a number of other things to provide support. For example, we help companies with innovation management, we provide strategic advice on entering markets, and we bring all key innovation players – including representatives from politics and public administration – together with partners in Europe. The issue of gender and diversity has been on the agenda for over 10 years and we take this into account in all projects and services.
Looking back over the last 25 years, you’ve developed some extremely useful competences with your colleagues at SEZ. Can these be used to the benefit of Baden-Württemberg?
The mandate given by the minister to the commissioner for Europe resulted in close dialogue with a variety of specialists at the state ministry, especially in the Ministry of Finance and Economics of course. Being in such close contact with the European Commission also allows us to support state administrators on a political level when planning funding programs. Not only does this ensure that all of the measures we work on are not just useful on a European level, we also always remain conscious of the benefit to companies, research institutions, and universities within our own state.
What new challenges will SMEs face in the future?
Companies now face huge challenges in international competition. Open innovation and “smart specialization” have been fuelling new opportunities and demands for some time now. Opening up innovation processes within the companies for strategic reasons is a decisive factor of competition. Developing products quickly and successfully now requires international collaboration. Especially when it comes to key technologies and how they’re used – for example, to introduce more digital processes in business in production, planning, and processes, or to create new products or services – so it’s important that small and mediumsized enterprises open up more. Otherwise there’s a danger that they’ll miss out on new opportunities and that the major players dictate standards and the markets. This affects all sectors of industry where “smart” applications are needed more quickly. The service strategy of Steinbeis is tailored to the needs of SMEs and this makes it the ideal partner when it comes to translating these challenges into an advantage for the companies.
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Norbert Höptner is director of Steinbeis- Europa-Zentrum (SEZ). SEZ was founded in 1990 under the initiative of the Commissioner for Europe of the Minister for Economics in the state of Baden- Württemberg. Its task is to make it easier for companies to reach out to Brussels. SEZ also acts as an EU advice center, not just for small and medium-sized enterprises but also for universities in Baden-Württemberg.