Initially funded by the Bavarian High-Tech Offensive and the EU, the Western Bavarian Technology Center TCW was founded in Nördlingen in 2002. It is a next-generation start-up centre, with entrepreneurial ambitions and significant unique features, which clearly goes beyond the standard operations of a typical start-up centre. An excellent infrastructure for new ideas was created, mainly in cooperation with the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences. The University-affiliated TCW institute, situated in the rural surroundings of the Technologiepark Westbayern technology park, enjoys an outstanding market reputation. This is due to excellent results and the professional quality of its transfer services as well as the remarkable flexibility of the innovation and start-up centre. It has become a sought-after project partner throughout southern Germany and has been particularly successful in raising third-party funds.
Technology and start-up centres (TGZs) are considered to be an essential instrument for promoting economic and technological development. In the difficult phases before, during and after the formation, they constitute local networks of firms that provide the best possible conditions for supporting the establishment or development of the resident enterprises during the limited period of time they stay at the centre. All in all, those centres act as incubators and catalysts for young enterprises and help them to develop into competitive and robust entities that are able to survive in the market in the long term. Especially in rural areas, far from the densely populated urban centres and tertiary education facilities, the TGZs are crucial for promoting regional development.
The town of Nördlingen, situated on the western edge of the Munich Metropolitan Region MMR in the Danube-Ries county, is such a rural area. There are four central tasks which the TCW has to address on its challenging path:
(1) Promoting innovative company formations in a start-up centre
(2) Developing its own profile as a technology centre for process, automation and manufacturing engineering and building networks with Bavarian universities
(3) Engaging in engineering services and dealing with future-oriented projects in the field of application-related research and development in cooperation with regional companies, as well as
(4) Playing an active part in the promotion of the regional economy and technology
The TCW, which is jointly operated by the Danube-Ries county and the town of Nördlingen, addresses each of these four tasks with strong involvement and entrepreneurial spirit. In doing so, we focus on five priorities: networking with well-established companies, formation and relocation of businesses, cooperation with universities (of applied sciences) and R&D institutions, extensive marketing activities to promote the region, and vocational qualification through high-quality courses and educational offers. Each business area is developed in accordance with an annually revised strategy. A performance evaluation is also in place. As a start-up centre, we provide affordable space to rent for prospective business founders and technology-oriented partner firms.
More than 1,800 square metres are waiting to be put to use. The smallest units comprise 26 square metres, they are suitable for manufacturing purposes and can be combined as required. Space that grows with the businesses. The entrepreneurs rent and pay only the amount and type of space they need. In addition, the start-ups benefit from a wide range of business advice and qualification opportunities, from a large variety of services, such as copying facilities, location and equipment management, and from meeting and conference rooms and the whole infrastructure necessary for creating a professional impression.
Short distances and direct access to TCW staff as point of call in case of problems help to deal with everyday challenges en passant.
TCW tenants have access to the internet and to internal networks, central telephone exchange, state-of-the-art IT systems as well as a vast range of one-stop services.
Firms benefit from targeted marketing activities and the high profile of the centre, which facilitate their market entry. Dedicated support and absolute protection of confidence are a matter of course. In addition, our services and advice are also available to prospective entrepreneurs from the region who are not based on our premises and are not planning to locate to the Western Bavarian Technology Center.
The TCW has already provided strong regional stimuli: 26 start-up projects were realized at the Center directly, and an additional 53 external entrepreneurial projects from various sectors were accompanied with advice.
Since 2004, Northern Swabia has ceased to be at the bottom of the league in terms of business start-ups. The TCW’s activities, especially in the field of start-up promotion, have had an impact on the whole region: Nearly 70 new jobs were created at the TCW. Relocations and successful efforts to keep major companies in the region also generated or saved about 150 jobs. Approximately 70 patent and trade mark applications – attesting to our innovative power – have been filed in connection with the TWC over the past six years. The TCW engineering team contributed ideas or advice to eight patent applications.
The competitiveness of young and newly founded firms depends to a significant degree on their capacity to use future-oriented technologies for developing innovative products in a very short period of time. The TCW has put much effort in building a far-reaching competence network of more than 90 partners. Much attention is given to strengthening the links with companies, banks, administrative, educational and R&D institutions as well as important political decision makers and multipliers (particularly chambers, economic development organizations, legal, tax and business consultants, universities, business networks or associations).
Northern Swabia is lacking tertiary education and R&D facilities, which sometimes had negative effects on start-up activities. This was recognized early on and compensated for by the TCW’s proactive action, for example by creating opportunities to attend lectures and cooperate with the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and the Fritz-Hopf technical college in Nördlingen. Degree theses and internships were also occasionally arranged in cooperation with universities of applied sciences in Nuremberg, Aalen and Regensburg.
The expansion of the TCW into an efficient engineering institute, affiliated to the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences, was consistently pursued. The current activities of the Western Bavarian Technology Center go beyond merely operating an incubator in that it follows a targeted industrial and project cooperation strategy.
This approach includes the development of tailor-made solutions to support regional medium-sized firms in clearly determined areas of demand – particularly in the application fields of mechatronics, automation and process metrology, sensor technology, condition monitoring, robotics and industrial image processing.
A cornerstone for the establishment of a university initiative was laid by ten local companies which jointly set up a foundation initiative that aimed to prepare the formation of a satellite institute of the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences in Northern Swabia.
The attempt was successful: In 2009, the TCW was awarded the status of an affiliated institute by the president of the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Hans-Eberhard Schurk.
The TCW is attached to the University with regard to teaching, research and academic work. It is home to a professorial chair and represents the North Swabian branch of the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences, where students can spend part of their studies.
Funds provided by the Swabian government, the Free State of Bavaria and the EU allowed the TCW institute to invest another substantial amount of money in extending its scope of involvement. This important anti-cyclical investment in people, education and a region, in difficult times, came at the right time. The money was spent on cutting-edge sensor and laser technology, a laboratory for industrial image processing, two lecture halls for optional and specialist lectures, and, apart from all these high-tech devices, on two lecture halls and another twelve laboratory work places for students who are involved in projects of the TCW or Augsburg University of Applied Sciences during lab courses and final papers.
Another novelty was inaugurated. A modern “Robotics Demo & Research Center” was established at the TCW institute, which can be used by students of the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and the Fritz-Hopf technical college and by partners from industry to conduct training, tests, research and development work related to robotics, gripping technology and manufacturing automation. It applies the latest engineering advances in education and technology transfer and is funded by KUKA Roboter GmbH, Messrs Schunk – a manufacturer of gripping devices (Lauffen/Neckar), the sensor manufacturer Micro-Epsilon (Ortenburg) and the North Rhine-Westphalian founder company HARTING (Espelkamp).
The TCW cooperates with chambers (ICC, chamber of trades). It is involved in the Bavarian “Mechatronics & Automation” (Augsburg) and “Sensor Technology” (Regensburg) innovation clusters and maintains contact with the Carbon Composite e.V. network. Its membership in the Augsburg-based university transfer network TEA forges particularly strong links with the market in Northern Swabia. As an organization of the Danube-Ries county, the TCW also takes an active part in MMR activities.
So far, this model of business and technology promotion has proved to be particularly useful. The Western Bavarian Technology Center has been showcased on several occasions as an exemplary model project at national level and has won numerous awards. The award of the “Bavarian Quality Award 2006” to the city of Nördlingen and the Western Bavarian Technology Center on 7 March 2006 constitutes a milestone in the history of the Center.
The author studied electrical engineering at the University of Ulm. He has been the managing director of the Western Bavarian Technology Center since 2002 and a member of the mechanical engineering faculty at the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences since 2008. In addition, he coordinates the activities of the regional cluster of the Technologiepark Westbayern – Process Automation Cluster.