Small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) networks and associations play already a relevant role on influencing desicion-makers involved in European politics. However they are still limited in their ability to communicate the full extent of their members’ needs at EU level. Only few SME associations have the capacities to effectively influence European Technology Platforms (ETP). Bearing this in mind Steinbeis- Europa-Zentrum started the EU project PRESTO. Its aim: to improve the collaboration among ETPs and SME associations and to enhance the leverage of SME associations as far as the definition of European research priorities is concerned.
As coordinator of the European project PRESTO, Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum fosters a dialogue between European Technology Platforms (ETP) and small and medium-sized enterprises associations (SMEsAs) in the construction industry, with a particular focus on energy, ICT and new materials technologies. The project is co-financed by the EU and has an overall budget of 556,000 Euros. The project will run until January 2010, and involves partners in Germany, Spain, Poland, UK and Italy.
As a first step, a Core Group of SMEsAs and ETPs was formed. Eight key SMEsAs and eight ETP agreed to collaborate with PRESTO consortium in the implementation of project activities. One of these is the Baden-Württemberg construction industry federation, which as umbrella organisation includes eight other member associations; the second organisation is the German Society for Wood Research in Bavaria. Together with the associations and their members, the PRESTO consortium assessed the strengths, opportunites,weaknesses and threats (SWOT Analysis) of companies working on new materials (especially wood), ICT and energy efficiency, in particular examining the specific priorities of research and development mentioned by SMEsAs and their members. The findings were validated by a panel of experts.
The survey identified that 54 per cent of SMEs carry out research themselves, or intend to set up a research department. The majority of SMEs consider new technology and research findings as highly relevant. One third of all respondents describe themselves as innovative. SMEs and associations consider partnerships with universities and research bodies a key success factor.
However, the analysis also uncovered weaknesses. Compared to other sectors, the building and construction industry is neither fast moving nor open to innovation. In general, SMEs tend to plan in the short term, looking for quick solutions for their problems with no long-term strategy regarding research and development. In most of the cases they do not have the right knowledge to identify relevant technology and benefit of it. There is also a general lack of information on funding options. Although the majority of SMEs find innovation important, they do not allocate time for it. To make matters worse, the associations frequently underestimate the innovation potential of their members. Conversely, SMEs do not always consult the associations to find out more about innovative solutions.
Despite this, one positive trend emerges clearly: a growing number of SMEs want to become involved in research projects, especially as they grow in size and become stronger. Innovation is seen as positive and good for their image. These enterprises clearly recognise the need to work more closely with research partners, business clusters, technology transfer organisations and other companies.
In parallel to the SWOT Analysis, PRESTO contacted the ETPpart of the PRESTO Core Group in order to ask them about their expectations on SMEsAs towards establishing a sustainable collaboration with SMEsAs. They were also informed about the results of the SWOT Analysis. The platforms feel that SMEsAs should be closer involved and have a stronger interest in getting involved in ETPs activities. A desirable goal would be a higher level of strategic input into the platforms’ research planning and closer involvement in joint EU research projects. Practice has shown that language barriers and intercultural misunderstandings can get in the way of cooperation. The Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum and the partners of PRESTO are now working up a strategy for establishing a sustainable collaboration between SMEsAs and ETPs. The aim is to enhance the influence of SMEs on decision-makers within the platforms and allow them some say in the formulation of strategic research and development priorities. In October 2009, representatives of the European Commission, ETPs and SMEsAs met in Bilbao to agree further cooperation measures. Among the options for intensifying cooperation between ETPs, SMEsAs and SMEs include the joint submission of EU projects and mutual participation in of events and workshops. The Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum is already active on a number of fronts. On the one hand, it is engaged in permanent dialogue with SMEs in Baden-Württemberg and people in politics and research. On the other, it provides expert input on a variety of EU committees regarding technology transfer, business cluster development, and research and innovation policy.