University – Industry Connectivity Within Thematic Smart Specialisation Partnerships

Authored by and

Structural funds related to research and innovation are being implemented by regions and Member states of the European Union on the condition that they apply the concepts and methods of Smart Specialisation (S3) to achieve sustainable growth through place-based development. One element of S3 builds on experimental, place-based learning, continuously involving a wide range of stakeholders. These engagements are often based on and facilitated through long standing or novel industry – university collaborations.

Strategic interregional cooperation with strong political commitment supports the vision that transnational networks have the potential to overcome the fragmentation of European systems of innovation and create new globally competitive European clusters. Accordingly, the European Commission launched thematic S3 platforms to support the realization of joint investment projects through interregional collaborations in shared S3 strategic areas.


Figure 1. Thematic S3 workflow

Thematic S3 partnerships working under the platforms represent transnational and transregional networks that are supported by multi-level governance approaches and enjoy active participation of national and regional institutions, among which universities, clusters and industry representatives play key roles. The main motivations in this process are enhancing commercialization of scientific knowledge through investments in pilots and industrial upscaling, creating new paths of development and renewing existing European clusters, industries and regional economies.

Partnerships connect universities and industries across borders through agreed governance structures and a structured workflow (see Figure 1), securing continuous exchange and dialogue, ensuring long-term and cumulative learning processes within the context of shared scientific disciplines and communities of expertise.  The bottom up approach in this process has resulted in a wide variety of scientific partnerships with industry at regional and transnational levels, including regions with different standing of their innovation ecosystems, but nevertheless connected through a shared thematic focus, enabling transnational processes of innovation.

The success of the thematic S3 partnerships largely depends on their ability to continuously involve regional stakeholders, build on their strengths and competences and be able to address them adequately and in a timely manner along the thematic S3 workflow.

What are the outcomes of the thematic S3 work from the past years?

  • 33 partnerships are currently applying the method. As of August 2019, stakeholders from over 144 regions are involved in 33 partnerships working under the thematic S3 platforms along the defined workflow. The move from this broad framework of cooperation in the direction of concrete investment projects, aligning interests of several types of stakeholders, has proved to be costly and time consuming. Nevertheless, a growing number of partnerships confirms the usefulness of the thematic S3 approach and signals the willingness and need of regions working together to align innovation roadmaps across European policies and territories. Interregional thematic collaboration can be seen as reducing the costs as a result of economies of scale (in case of successful joint projects). Regional stakeholders commit resources to the potential improvement of their regional ecosystem. Several thousands of stakeholders with relevant competences have been mapped out and a great number of interested parties found their match. It is an ongoing process as well as the collection, codification and analysis of evidence from the unfolding experiences. 
  • Partnerships connect lagging regions with advanced regions and strong universities. An important outcome is that the thematic partnerships have succeeded in connecting leading regions with moderate innovators. The semi-openness of the partnership facilitates the development of knowledge commons with an efficient system and governance structure for knowledge sharing.
  • Partnerships create European level critical mass in emerging clusters and value chains. It is expected to make the leap from a small niche in a laboratory to industrial testing and upscaling possible. For firms and regions, that are at the core of these partnerships, a strong motivating factor is to maintain the leading position in an emerging value chainand experience growth in the upscaling face. 
  • Regional Development and Cohesion Policy beyond 2020 defines interregional collaboration as one of the fulfilment criteria for the enabling condition of S3. The new programming period starting in 2021 requires Smart Specialisation Strategies to be supported by measures of international collaboration. Furthermore, a new interregional innovation investment tool, inspired by the work of the thematic S3 partnerships, is planned. Thus, regions with matching S3 assets are expected to be given additional financial support to scale up bankable interregional projects.

Thus, the primary objective of the thematic approach to S3 is to develop and enhance European value chains in specific areas linked to participating regions’ S3 priorities. The objective is achieved via exploiting complementary research and innovation capabilities, building up necessary capacities, and overcoming interregional fragmentation and lack of critical mass. All these require flexible governance structures and incentives that allow a constant interaction between key stakeholders, among which universities’ take an integral role.

To universities, cooperation through transnational partnerships is an attractive option for several reasons. Primarily, it makes research cooperation with other universities and industries in other countries possible, which can improve research funding, create attractive possibilities for exchange including joint strategies of publication and patenting. Furthermore, transnational university – industry networks may lead to new possibilities of spin-offs and academic entrepreneurship.

We are interested in good practices in this field. What can be achieved, what works (and what does not work) in developing these relations? Please, share your experiences and ideas with us! 

Fatime Barbara Hegyi: fatime-barbara.hegyi@ec.europa.eu

Age Mariussen: agemariussen@yahoo.com

©European Commission, 2019

The Smart Specialisation Platform for Industrial Modernisation Brochure, 2019

Further information regarding the thematic S3 platforms:

Industrial Modernisation

Agri-Food

Energy