For small and medium-sized enterprises, gaining access to key enabling technologies (KETs) is still not as easy as it sounds. SMEs often lack the right networks and contacts to business clusters. Working on behalf of the European Commission, Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (SEZ) has now set up a Europe-wide platform of professional providers of services in six KETs fields. To do this, the SEZ has categorized technology providers and their infrastructures according to quality criteria. The information generated is now accessible online.
KETs are multidisciplinary technologies that demand a great deal of knowledge and capital. They are being introduced to a variety of sectors of industry due to their significant commercial potential. There are six KETs in Europe: nanotechnology, micro and nanoelectronics, photonics, industrial biotechnology, advanced materials, and manufacturing technologies.
To stimulate dialogue between European centers of technological excellence with the right KETs know-how, SEZ has been working in collaboration with a Greek company called Q-Plan on behalf of the EU, and has embarked on a special research project. This resulted in the selection of five technology centers across Europe and these centers are already collaborating closely: AeroSwedish ICT (Stockholm, Sweden), Johanneum Research (Weiz, Austria), LEITAT (Terrassa, Spain), the Manufacturing Group Warwick University (Coventry, UK) and Hahn-Schickard (Stuttgart and Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany). Each organization signed on to a fast-track, two-year exchange program and rounds of visits in each country. As the collaborative project got underway, a working group emerged which is regularly attended by 24 experts.
Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum organized visits to all five locations in Europe which were attended by all key players. The aim was to explore research priorities, business models, and the strategies pursued at each establishment. This was followed by an exercise to derive a common strategy for future collaboration with a focus on KETs. Different topics were placed on the agenda for each of the five visits. At the first meeting in Stuttgart, the experts started by examining possible collaboration and synergies in the field of advanced manufacturing technology and nanotechnology. On the second visit to Barcelona, the emphasis lay in industrial biotechnology and advanced materials, whereas at the third meeting in Graz (Austria) the key topic of conversation was photonics and micro nanoelectronics. At the fourth and fifth meetings in the UK and Sweden, collaboration went into more detail and internal exchange between the experts was extended to include external, public events. A key reason for this was to involve small and medium-sized enterprises. These SMEs were asked to talk about their needs and give feedback on the services offered by the technology centers, particularly when it comes to KETs. Work was also carried out on a list of recommendations to be sent to the European Commission. Overall, this round of exchange involved 44 different companies.
One company that benefited from this process of exchange with experts was Hahn-Schickard, which has positioned itself as an institution of excellence in the state of Baden-Württemberg in the field of KETs. The visits resulted in channels of communication becoming established for the long term between several key players. This has resulted in the submission of a joint European proposal.
SEZ discussed the results and recommendations with 60 key players at a closing conference in Brussels in October 2015. The results were pulled together into an action plan and this was presented as part of a study on KETs in December 2015. The 187 providers – which the European Commission calls KETs technology infrastructures – are also listed on the website of the European Commission. The website provides a map for SMEs to filter out KETs providers pertinent to their work not only in the local area but also across Europe. This involves entering technology keywords and the nature of the offer.
The website has made it possible for the first time for companies to gain a comprehensive overview of technology centers and infrastructures relevant to their fields of activity. This makes it easier to access know-how across Europe, as well as services and KETs themselves.
Collaboration with the KETs technology centers is helping SMEs launch their products and implement innovations more quickly before introducing them to the market. All centers provide a key contact (national contact point) for SMEs and offer the following services:
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Norbert Höptner and Dr. Petra Püchner are directors of Steinbeis-Europa- Zentrum where Heike Fischer is also a project manager. The aim of SEZ is to provide support to companies, universities, and research organizations in Baden- Württemberg on issues relating to European research programs and technology collaboration.