Collaborations between SMEs and universities, in non-metropolitan regions. What factors relate to the start, and unfolding of these collaborations?

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Previous research has unearthed factors positively related to industry-university collaboration. In a recently available working paper, David Fernández Guerrero tries to broaden the reach of the industry-university collaboration literature, by exploring how such factors might influence the initiation and unfolding of collaborations between SMEs and universities in non-metropolitan regions; SMEs are at the centre of the analysis because most firms in non-metropolitan regions are typically SMEs.

Scholars have looked for drivers of university-industry collaboration on innovation. As a result, a list of factors positively associated with industry-university collaboration has been unearthed. (i) Universities’ approach to regional innovation and development matters, with universities in non-metropolitan regions being active in the establishment of links with local firms (Boucher et al., 2003). (ii) Firms, if accessing public funding, are more likely to collaborate with universities (Mohnen and Hoareau, 2003); (iii) and firms are also more likely to collaborate with universities if they are engaged in open innovation strategies (Hewitt-Dundas et al., 2019).

The literature could explore how such factors relate to starting, and unfolding of industry-university collaboration. Furthermore, more research is required to explore how the factors mentioned above relate to industry-university collaboration in non-metropolitan regions. Whereas metropolitan regions are home to multiple universities, university presence in non-metropolitan regions is typically limited to a local university (Boucher et al., 2003; Tödtling and Trippl, 2005). Owing to a relatively small number of potential innovation partners in non-metropolitan regions, firms’ in non-metropolitan regions are relatively likely to source knowledge from beyond their region (Grillitsch and Nilsson, 2015).

In the working paper SME–University Collaboration in Non-metropolitan regions: A multiple Case Study Analysis of How Collaborations Start and Unfold (RUNIN Working Paper Series 04/2020) I explore how industry-university collaboration factors relate to the initiation of links between firms and universities, and their unfolding into full-fledged collaborations. These factors are university actions, access to public funding, and knowledge sourcing from other organisations than universities. The case studies concern SMEs and universities in non-metropolitan regions, allowing to highlight how the findings are generalisable to non-metropolitan regions. Focusing the case study on SMEs allows focusing on a type of firms that constitute the majority of the business demography in non-metropolitan regions (Tödtling and Trippl, 2005).

The study includes seven cases of collaboration between SMEs and universities, in three non-metropolitan regions in Denmark, Norway and Portugal (North Denmark, Rogaland, and Aveiro). The case study design aimed at finding, through cross-case comparisons (Eisenhardt, 1989), commonalities in industry-university collaboration dynamics in non-metropolitan regions. Four additional cases of collaboration between SMEs and universities are also included in the study, in order to highlight what findings might be specific to non-metropolitan regions. Because the cases belong to three countries, it is possible to unearth findings transferable to more than one national context (Tsang, 2013). The case study data consists of in-depth interviews with firm managers and university researchers, as well as document data.

Concerning the findings (summarised in figure 1), the non-metropolitan case studies highlight that:

  • In non-metropolitan regions the local universities take an active role by starting links with the local firms. Non-metropolitan universities develop institutional events dedicated to promoting links with firms; researchers from non-metropolitan universities can also look for private partners among regional firms (proposition 1.1). Student interns can support researchers in their search for private partners by providing information about firms where they carried their internship (proposition 1.2).
  • Two types of incentives motivate the non-metropolitan case firms to dedicate the resources needed to unfold their links with universities from non-collaborative links—such as student internships or consultancy— into full-fledged research collaborations. On the one hand, public subsidies provide these firms with the funding they need, with research collaborations (proposition 2). On the other hand,  the non-metropolitan firms are interested in being attractive to international customers, and collaboration with universities supports them in this goal (proposition 3).
  • The non-metropolitan SMEs possess R&D departments. These R&D departments help the case firms acquire and integrate university knowledge, further stimulating the unfolding of university links into research collaboration (proposition 4).

The case study findings deepen the insights from the industry-university collaboration literature by (a) highlighting what factors are more relevant at the initiation stage of industry-university collaboration, and the unfolding stage of industry-university collaboration; (b) suggesting the mechanisms through which each factor relates to the initiation, and unfolding of industry-university collaboration; (c) applying the findings to SMEs in non-metropolitan regions. To policymakers, the case study suggests that it might be possible to extend, in non-metropolitan regions, the variety of firms that collaborate with universities, by incentivising non-metropolitan universities to dedicate more resources to approaching regional firms. Policymakers should also consider measures such as putting at the centre of industry-university collaboration policies those incentives that motivate firms to become engaged in collaborative research, and increasing the funding available to incentivise research collaboration between SMEs and universities.

David Fernández Guerrero is a PhD candidate in Business and Management at Aalborg University, Denmark, and is an ESR fellow of the RUNIN project, which received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 722295.

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