Tech Review

Linking up EU clusters

16.12.2011

Europe has always recognised that critical mass through cooperation is the route to success, and nowhere is this more true than in biotechnology clusters. The EU has spent hundreds of millions of euros supporting both science and business-building, with funding at both regional and European levels. But with the globe in the grip of an economic crisis, the aid that helped clusters develop has begun drying up. For continued growth, cooperation is now no longer just an option, but a necessity. Partner­ships between companies and cluster managers across Europe have to increase to maximise the chances of success – or even survival.

Luckily for Europe, economic challenge is nothing new in the biotechnology sector, and clusters have long been aware that the development money would run out. Demonstrating sustainability has been a priority for most cluster managers, along with returning investment, creating employment and proving that research from their academic centres can be effectively commercialised. Cooperation between clusters has been building for many years now, evolving from ideas and expensive grand plans into practical tools that are affordable and bring direct, measurable benefit for cluster managers and their growing biocommunities. But the benefits of cooperation differ for the cluster managers and their companies.

Networking cluster managers

Cluster managers, who often take up the reins in a commercially immature biotechnology region, must be able to rapidly and effectively develop and deliver biotech­ support. That means tough decisions on what will work, what will give a maximum return on public funds and how to be very self-critical. Europe is littered with the remains of poorly designed and executed cluster development plans, and the only way to avoid that fate is by sharing experiences – both good and bad – and moving skills between regions. The Council of European Bio­Regions was founded over eight years ago by the clusters themselves to do just that, and the benefits are being felt. Cluster managers from over 50 biocommunities in Europe are now working together through a Cluster Manager Group delivered by the EC-funded

ABCEurope project and supported by the Council of European BioRegions.The group meets every 2-3 months, and has discussed topics such as building cluster culture, cluster assessment, implementing cluster strategy, and creating value for cluster actors. Hosted by the clusters themselves (including those in Heidelberg, Stockholm, Munich, Cambridge and Wallonia) the meetings bring together expert speakers and formally assess specific cluster activities for benefit and transferability between clusters. Results are posted on the CEBR website. The topics have included:
– Purchasing scheme for cluster companies – Cambridge/

London
– YIC Network – from PharmaValley (France)
– Mindbrowser open innovation platform – from Piemonte (Italy)
– Transferring biotechnology into classical industry sectors – from Baden Württemberg (Germany)

Networking cluster companies

If your company doesn’t attend the big partnering meetings in

Europe, it is very hard to find and build business and research partnerships outside your cluster or country, particularly for small companies. Clusters are now working together in a much more concrete fashion to connect firms directly with business partners, resources, facilities – everything that Europe already has, but struggles to connect. Examples include:
– Tools of Science Europe – an online platform that lists expert facilities that SMEs can access. The platform was launched in Sept­ember 2011, with over 200 facilities from 13 clusters. Free to access and free for inclusion until September 2012, the platform is growing rapidly, with new facilities being added by clusters each month (www.toolsofscience.eu).
– International matchmaking – a virtual partnering programme that has been launched to bring small companies together through skype and phone around specific topics before the cost of travel is incurred. The first programme has been launched – with a focus on oncology, it will take place in February 2012. It is managed by cluster managers around Europe, and makes perfect use of their contacts within their own community. Because it is virtual, there are also minimal costs attached. Effort and company understanding are the key to success
– Technology showcases between clusters – most clusters hold their own conferences, but it is always a challenge to bring in partners from outside, particularly SMEs. A programme of Technology Showcases has been launched between clusters. Held alongside cluster conferences, tech showcases are topic-specific, and cluster managers have selected companies and applied researchers together to showcase themselves to partners they would not meet in their normal working life. The first was held in Toulouse around the topic of Oncology and the second (on Infections and Immunity) took place as part of the Genesis conference in London.
EC funding has been key to helping clusters cooperate – a pre­requisite for all projects is international collaboration. In the cases described above, activities have been designed to be sustainable and affordable, delivered by clusters working in partnership – and long may it continue.

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