ERCIM News No.24 - January 1996

Prof. José Manuel Tribolet, Director of INESC: "ERCIM can be an important instrument for the effective development of technology-based SMEs networks"


he cultural and geographical context of institutions determines the organisational paradigm for Research and Development (R&D) activities: the European model is different from the American and the Japanese ones. In Europe, scientific and technological research (S&T) has been traditionally centred on a university system which promotes academic excellence; in the framework of large European multi-national corporations and within the large public laboratories. In the United States by contrast, adding to these solutions are a number of institutions, which assume several juridical forms, but which are always organised and oriented to perform R&D activities in a structured and professional way. They are generally designated as Contract Based Research Organisations.

This form of institutional solution has been establishing itself in Europe for the past twenty years, and is currently an important component of the S&T system and one of the pillars of a new European reality. The basic philosophy, and also one of the fundamental characteristics of the ERCIM consortium, is the connection between R&D and two other related activities: the development of highly qualified human resources to respond to society's urgent requirement for advanced knowledge; and technology transfer to public and private entities.

Technology transfer can be accomplished through four essential methods: contract-based R&D among organisations; programs supporting the pro-active development of innovative solutions, products and technologies; supply of technical services and consultancy; and the promotion of spin-offs and small entrepreneurial new firms sometimes using venture capital resources. This is why several ERCIM institutions, as part of their technology transfer mission, have developed spin-offs and business incubation activities.

While support of spin-offs is quite common within the American S&T System, by and large in Europe, there is a clear lack of coordination between R&D activities, active support for spin-offs (including venture financing of entrepreneurial innovation), and the overall strengthening of industrial competitiveness. The need for such coordination obviously depends on the specific economic profile of each country. However, in general the areas of ERCIM activity within the European economy are dominated by the policies of Governments or large corporations. The universe of European technology-based Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs), the main employer and innovation factor anywhere in the world, is relatively fragile when compared with its American counterpart, due to the existing economic nationalisms that delay the onset of the internal market.

ERCIM institutions, with their commonality of strategic vision and their ability to attract vital youthful resources and know-how, should reinforce their commitment to spin-offs. They have a particular responsibility to create professional options for researchers or outside entrepreneurs who want to carry prototype developments up to commercialisation. Instead of just providing the usual infrastructural support to spin-offs, we can contribute to this strategy of wealth and job creation by investing in strong and constant relationships with the new companies, so that they can establish their positions in their home markets and eventually expand into the global market.

ERCIM can be an important instrument for the effective development of technology-based SME networks, supported by our laboratories, while promoting the interchange of business interests and initiatives throughout the European market. ERCIM's ability to add value in this area should be stressed and we must actively promote the skilled human resources and knowledge-bases within our institutions. I consider it to be opportune over the short term, within the framework of the biannual ERCIM meetings, to promote a kind of ERCIM Partenariat where, in addition to the activities of our researchers and managers, we can work together with SMEs to assess our potential contribution to the European economy.

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