Dr.-Ing. habil. Bertram Dressel: Innovation centres are experienced partners in the development of knowledge-based economic structures in Germany

Not every company founder is strong enough right from day one to start a business by themselves. Typically, the best-possible alternative is to get started in an innovation, technology or business incubation centre.

The economic success of a country is increasingly determined by its ability to successfully establish new products and services in the market within a short period of time. In Germany, the conditions for this are more than just good thanks to its extraordinarily efficient research landscape. A common complaint is, however, that the translation into marketable products and services either takes too long or is neglected altogether. Innovation centres are institutions which specifically tackle this problem – and do so successfully. By providing targeted support to new companies arising from the research sector, they pave the way for an efficient innovation culture.

If one analyses the work of the centres over the past 30 years, the assessment is positive. The German innovation centres were able to create more than 260,000 innovative jobs in a total of around 40,000 newly founded companies. Records show that foundations within the innovation centres have a success rate of more than 90 per cent. During re­­cent years, the number of newly founded companies in the inno­­vation centres has remained at a stable level of around 900 per year, irrespective of any crises. Relative to the total num­­­­­­ber of companies belonging to the centres, this equates to approximately 15 per cent in new businesses annually. At the end of 2012, the capacity utilisation of the Ger­­man innovation centres exceeded 80 per cent for more than three quarters of the centres.

These figures show very clearly that the centres have been very successful in their three main tasks, namely to initiate knowledge-based foundations, to support the technology transfer and to promote businesses.

With the five pillars of their services

• Innovation
• Infrastructure
• Consulting
• Capital
• Education

the centres provide the best prerequisites for successful innovation-based foundations and results-oriented tech­­nology transfer.

Until now, the services in the areas of infrastructure, consulting and innovation management have been the centres’ well-established standards. As part of the further development of the range of services offered, the capital factor is becoming more and more important. Currently the services of this pillar are characterised by intermediary services such as finance consulting, brokering of contacts to investors or networking with business angels. Moreover, it is important that the innovation centres procure an industry-specific infrastructure or renter-­specific equipment for start-ups and can rent these at conditions suitable for new businesses. Otherwise the new companies are not able to purchase such often expensive equipment themselves. Thanks to their exten­­sive network, the innovation centres can ensure optimum utilisation of the equipment. The services of the education pillar include issues relating to professional motivation through the familiarisation with innovations as part of school education as well as practice-oriented training phases of non-academic and academic vocational training. In this context, the centres – as partners of science and industry – can provide a platform where new practical educational services are set up in cooperation with the education providers. This service pillar is rounded off with modules of post-graduate further education and extra-occupational qualification. By linking this service pillar to the other services of the centres, new levels of quality can be achieved in the support of start-ups, innovation transfer as well as training and further education.

A number of lessons learned can be derived from the success story. An essential factor in the successful work of the innovation centres has been and still is the close cooperation with scientific institutions. The dovetailing with existing economic structures as well as with other parties involved in supporting start-ups, on the other hand, is just as important. Here it becomes obvious that regional alliances work together very successfully and in a results-oriented fashion. Beyond these regional networks, the national network of innovation centres also forms a critical basis for success, not only in terms of the national and even international exchange of experience regarding the work of the innovation centres, but also in sector-specific work groups, as offered by the German Association of Innovation, Iechnology and Busi­­ness Incubation Centres, ADT.

The nature and conditions of value creation and competition change fundamentally in modern knowledge socie­­­ties, as knowledge is becoming the key basis for new ranges of products and services. Those who make effec­­t­ive use of the networked, local and interdisciplinary knowledge that is available have a competitive advantage. Spatial proximity and smooth transitions feed the communicative exchange and interdisciplinary interaction processes between people from the areas of re­­search and economy in these centres. Similar results cannot be achieved with conventional structures for technology transfer, especially if they are superimposed by administration. In a globalised world, the innovation centres form ideal platforms and frameworks for the interaction of universities, businesses and governments to benefit innovation and economic growth. What is very helpful in this context is that the centres and parks are able to efficiently counter the increasing costs and risks of the commercialisation of knowledge. They create best-possible conditions for the commercial use of scientific results by providing and taking advantage of a joint infrastructure as well as of highly flexible mixed areas between the scientists and business people involved.

A critical factor for success is local and regional networking with scientific institutions. For this reason, setting up such institutions directly in the innovation centres is desirable. Successful projects from industry and science under one roof, as they were realised with the Saxon biotechnology centres in Leipzig and Dresden, for example, reveal the potential for success. Moreover, the centres are able to inspire and lead regional economic developments such as the settling of new re­­search facilities or new science-focused businesses. With their maxim of customer orientation, the centres are predestined to be protagonists in such processes.

The main focal point of the centres’ work is and will con­­tinue to be the generation and support of knowledge-based foundations. A key factor for success is to recognise and implement the support of start-ups as a process. When doing so, the centres integrate various regional actors, each of whom maps individual components of the process chain. These components are illustrated in Figure 2. The relevant actors differ, depending on the location. The innovation centres focus on the steps from company foundation to company growth. One aspect of the holistic approach is also the reciprocity. In this way, innovation is not a one-way street, but successful innovation projects generate feedback which triggers new research projects, thus resulting in a new quality of mutual collaboration.

It is obvious that the German innovation centres provide the best conditions to continue to play an import­ant role in the process of innovation.

The author was born in Meerane, Germany, in 1955 and studied Process Engineering at TU Dresden, where he completed his doctorate (“Dr.-Ing.”) in 1982 and postdoctoral habilitation in 1987. He is managing director of TechnologieZentrumDresden GmbH and president of the ADT German Association of Innovation, Technology and Business Incubation Centres.