In the globalization process, the old assurances of commercial success, such as high labour productivity in the western countries, have changed as a result of the linking-up of national economies. Even the internationally lower production costs of mass products – preferably in Asia and Eastern Europe – cannot be achieved through massive cost reductions in our companies. Nowadays, these regions not only make “cheap products”, they also make more sophisticated products. The key to preserving the competitiveness of our companies is due primarily to our ability to innovate.
The basis for this ability to innovate lies in the use of knowledge, which has been increasing at an incredible speed for some decades. Countries with few raw materials but high production costs must regard this knowledge as a sustainable raw material with a very short half-life and use the innovation potential concealed therein efficiently. It is possible to make external knowledge available to innovative companies very quickly. To do this, the successful transfer of knowledge and technology has been used for over 25 years by the Steinbeis Foundation, where a central role is played by its transfer activity, an organizational process between science and business characterized not by its linearity but by interaction and positive feedback between the partners involved, and which accepts the principles of market orientation and competition.
The Steinbeis Foundation, with its many transfer centres and subsidiaries, is used by the commercial sector as an external, short or long-term, partner in dealing with issues or problems that occur by contributing its expert knowledge at every stage of the added-value chain. It offers its clients the efficient transfer of knowledge and technology in all areas of technology and fields of management. Since the process of establishing and closing transfer centres at the Steinbeis Foundation is an important process of the system, which is directed by client needs and market demand, individual transfers can also be guaranteed as early as the development stage. This applies in particular to interdisciplinary technologies, such as nanotechnology or micro-system technology, which are becoming more and more important.
Since the Foundation was established, the demands made of it and the conditions under which transfers are made, have become more sophisticated, more comprehensive and more complex. Whereas in the past, the transfer of knowledge and technology used to be regarded as the bringing together of science and business, today the concept must be extended considerably. Currently we regard the transfer of existing or newly generated knowledge from their sources – such as universities, institutes of technology and research centres – to business and users as an independent services process, which creates added value. In the process the focus is always on the efficient and effective use of knowledge.
The experts carrying out the transfer process are mostly professors or research assistants from tertiary education institutes who offer their knowledge-based services in the form of advice, in preparing expert studies and appraisals, research and development and in the field of vocational training.
The operational units of the Steinbeis system are the independently-operating, decentralized transfer centres, which are aimed mainly at small and medium-sized companies as a target group for the transfer of the competition-oriented or actual transfer of knowledge or technology.
The heads of the non-subsidized, self-financed transfer centres work decentrally as commercial entities within the Steinbeis company and are oriented solely to use for clients.
The transfer centres, which are integrated into universities, use the infrastructure existing at the university or college to fulfil client orders; this is made possible via corresponding framework agreements. Besides all fields of technology, non-technical services, such as consulting and vocational training, are also offered. The Steinbeis College offers academic courses in conformity with the project competence concept, as well as certificate courses. At the moment, more than 800 transfer centres are linked up in the network, which employs more than 5,500 people. These include about 800 professors, who offer their services mainly on a part-time basis; there are also 1,360 permanent employees and other project employees who are involved in temporary project work.
The clients have access not only to new knowledge and new technologies, they can also obtain integrated solutions to problems from the many experts there. Responsibility for projects and operational competence at Steinbeis remains with the head of the centre or a nominated project head. But all projects have the ultimate support of Steinbeis GmbH & Co. KG für Technologietransfer. As a corporate entity, it is also available as a partner in major projects.
The transfer centres are thus defined contact points for companies. In many cases, the technical consulting activities at regionally-based companies supplement the activities of the local chambers of commerce and trades chambers. They play a limited role in company formation by tertiary graduates or in outsourcing and occasionally function as incubators until potential entrepreneurs have developed their business ideas to the point of maturity, which then allows them to enter the competition in the market. This is how the technology transfer centres also support company start-ups, thereby contributing to the development of regional economies.
The many projects administered by the Steinbeis companies for their clients have been treated as independent added-value processes in the form of commercial, knowledge-based services. Client satisfaction is regarded as an unmistakable sign of the successful and sustainable transfer of knowledge and technology.
The author is head of the institute of biochemistry at the Mannheim University of Applied Science. After completing an apprenticeship as a chemical technician
at BASF AG in Ludwigshafen/Rhein, he studied Chemical Engineering at the State Engineering School in Mannheim. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of Heidelberg before going on
to do a doctorate in that subject in 1979.