Strengthening the Role of Academic Institutions and Innovation Brokers in Agri-Food Innovation: Towards Hybridisation in Cross-Border Cooperation
- What are the similarities and differences between the two regions in how academic institutions and innovation brokers support innovation in agri-food SMEs?
- What are the relative strengths of each of the two regions in innovation-driven cooperation?
- What traits of a cross-border innovation space are already present in the cross-border region and how can hybridisation effects be fostered?
2. Conceptual Framework
- Innovation space (including the function of academic institutions and innovation brokers);
- First, cross-border areas have their particular position in both national and regional innovation systems with corresponding differences in legislation, educational systems etc. . This particularly affects institutions, knowledge bases, networks and related multifaceted processes [3,4,32,34,37,38,39,40,41].
- Second, innovation processes are dynamic, contextually contingent and reliant on learning in networks [3,5,13,14,24,38,42,43,44,45,46,47]. Innovation-driven interactions in a regional setting, for example, tend to be manifested through interorganisational relations embedded in local networks; this is also how innovation can acquire its systemic quality [44,48].
- Third, effectively connecting networks and relations across borders can be a challenge as such interactions do not naturally emerge in a cross-border region setting [4,31,32]. They need to be nurtured, not least due to socio-cultural factors such as differences in mentality, mindset, business practices and language barriers . It has been argued that dedicated facilitators, dubbed as ”innovation brokers”, and increasingly also academic institutions [49,50,51], can fulfil important roles in catalysing relationships in cross-border settings [46,52]
3. Methodology and Empirical Basis
3.1. Study Area
3.2. Study Approach and Methods
4. Comparative Analysis of Dutch and German Regions in the Cross-Border Region Euregio Rhein-Waal
- Similarities and differences between the two regions in how academic institutions and innovation brokers support innovation in agri-food SMEs (Section 4.1).
- Relative strengths and the regional context factors that limit and enable these strengths in innovation-driven cooperation (Section 4.2).
- Traits of a cross-border innovation space and of hybridisation potentials (Section 4.3).
4.1. Similarities and Differences between the Two Regions in How Academic Institutions and Innovation Brokers Support Innovation in Agri-Food SMEs
- Access to funding, such as subsidies, various grants as part of regional and EU-funded projects, contacts of investors.
- Exchanging knowledge, sharing experiences and getting access to resources (e.g., lab facilities or equipment) through networking.
- New partnerships for product or market development and recruiting new employees.
- Access to markets and advice on cultural specificities of international markets.
4.2. Relative Strengths and the Regional Context Factors That Limit and Enable Them
- the complementarities between the two regions that can drive joint cross-border innovation,
- how one region can compensate its weaknesses cooperating with the other.
4.3. Traits of a Cross-Border Innovation Space and of Hybridisation Potentials
- Knowledge infrastructure is separated with only a few academic institutions, innovation brokers and similar intermediary organisations working across the border. Moreover, the way academia and businesses cooperate differs a lot between the two regions and complementarities are not yet used. Both are indicative of an underutilised potential for hybridisation that could fairly easily be remedied. Currently the main driver and opportunity for engagement in cross-border innovation cooperation is the Interreg programme. In this respect, the Dutch SMEs we interviewed unanimously believe that this programme is the best innovation support currently available for SMEs and start-ups as well as the best means for cross-border cooperation.
- The differences in institutional set-ups might well be the biggest hurdle. Relevant legal and regulatory frameworks related to employment, funding, educational programmes, etc. hinder cross-border cooperation. The same applies to the mechanisms in place for facilitating innovation and innovation network characteristics. All of these would be hard to overcome. Related to innovation networks as part of institutional set-ups, many SME owners and innovation brokers expressed that a much-needed cross-border network is essentially absent and that the awareness of how business is done across the border is limited. These imply potentials for hybridisation that could relatively easily be exploited.
- In respect of economic aspects and policy frameworks, SMEs’ needs were found to be almost identical, while political agendas and priorities are profoundly different. Related to this also the level of government support provided for agri-food innovation varies significantly. All these aspects are largely determined at the national level and are therefore hard to overcome.
- Many respondents emphasised the importance of social values, norms, cultural habits and language in cross-border cooperation. Innovation actors in the Dutch region were often described as more commercially oriented, flexible in work processes and creative, while their German counterparts were referred to as focussed on agreed plans, methods and processes and more reliant on data. More importantly, about half of the interviewees saw the cooperation as an opportunity to learn from each other, improve practices and consequently achieve a bigger impact in cross-border projects. Interestingly, these relative strengths represent the only potential for hybridisation that is already recognised and appreciated by the respondents.
- What are the similarities and differences between the two regions in how academic institutions and innovation brokers support innovation in agri-food SMEs?
- What are the relative strengths of each of the two regions in innovation-driven cooperation?
- What traits of a cross-border innovation space and hybridisation are already present in the cross-border region and how can hybridisation effects be fostered?
5.1. Similarities and Differences between the Two Regions in the Role of Academic Institutions and Innovation Brokers in Supporting Innovation in Agri-Food SMEs
5.2. Relative Strengths of Each of the Two Regions in Innovation-Driven Cooperation
5.3. From Regional Strengths to Hybridisation in a Cross-Border Innovation Space
- There are a number of similarities and differences between the two regions in how academic institutions and innovation brokers support innovation in agri-food SMEs. The similarities we identified provide a common ground for regional innovation actors. However, it is the differences and relative regional strengths that allow cross-fertilisation. The take-home message for regional innovation actors and Interreg is that acknowledging mutual differences between border regions in economic, institutional and social structures, knowledge and technological capacity, political visions and cultural identities, and more importantly—valorising them, is necessary to enable cross-fertilisation and enhance cross-border cooperation.
- Eight relative strengths of the two regions in innovation-driven cooperation have been identified along with regional context factors that limit or enable them. If used strategically, these strengths can considerably benefit cross-border cooperation.
- Up to now only limited traits of a cross-border innovation space and of hybridisation are present in the cross-border region. Generally, multiple opportunities for a better utilisation of complementary strengths are hardly recognised by regional innovation actors, let alone their strategic use in cross-border cooperation.
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
|Interview Date & Language||Innovation Broker||University||SME||Innovation Broker in Some Way Linked to Government||Helicopter View/Case-Specific Interview|
|1||31.03. English||DE||DE||Helicopter view|
|2||01.04. English||NL-DE||NL||Helicopter view|
|3||01.04. English||NL||X||Helicopter view|
|4||03.04. English||DE||Helicopter view|
|5||03.04. English||DE||X||Case-specific interview|
|6||06.04. English||NL||X||Case-specific interview|
|7||07.04. German||DE||DE||Case-specific interview|
|8||10.04. English||NL||Case-specific interview|
|9||14.04. English||DE-NL||X||Helicopter view|
|10||15.04. English||NL||Case-specific interview|
|11||16.04. English||NL||Case-specific interview|
|12||17.04. German||NL||NL||Case-specific interview|
|13||22.04 English||NL||Helicopter view|
|14||28.04. English||NL||Case-specific interview|
|15||04.05 German||DE||X||Helicopter view|
|16||15.05. German||DE||X||Helicopter view|
|17||25.05. German||DE||Helicopter view|
|18||29.05. German||DE||Case-specific interview|
|19||08.06. German||DE||Case-specific interview|
|Total number of respondents|
NL respondents: 8
DE respondents: 9
|13||4||6||6||9 vs. 10|
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|Proximity Dimension||Aspect||Assessment Criteria|
|Cognitive||Knowledge infrastructure||Role of academic institutions, innovation brokers and other bridging or intermediary organisations|
Engagement of academic institutions and innovation brokers in regional and cross-border innovation-oriented cooperation
Cooperation between academia and businesses
|Institutional||Institutional set-up||Relevant legal and regulatory frameworks (e.g., on funding, labour markets, intellectual property right regimes)|
Mechanisms in place to facilitate innovation
Innovation network characteristics (e.g., who, what: regional, cross-border, thematic)
|Economic and policy aspects||SMEs and their needs|
Political agenda and priorities
Government support for innovation
|Socio-cultural aspects||Social values, norms, cultural habits and language|
Patterns of knowledge exchange (e.g., co-learning)
(NUTS 3, COROP)
|Population density (NUTS 3; 2018)||482–811||258–458|
|GDP at current market prices (NUTS 3; 2018; Euro per inhabitant; as % of EU average)||122–140||93–99|
|Importance of agri-food sector (share of food-related employment in total manufacturing; %; 2018)||21.8||8.0|
|Human resources in science and technology (2017)|
|Scientists & engineers in % of economically active persons||9.9||7.4|
|R&D intensity (2018)|
|Expenditure per inhabitant (€; NL = Oost-Nederland, 2018)||775||794|
|Expenditure in % of GDP (%; NL = Oost-Nederland, 2018)||2.07||1.96|
|No. of academic institutions|
|Comparative Aspect||Related Criteria||Differences between the Regions||Illustrative Quotes|
|Significance of agri-food innovation in the regional agenda and in innovation support||In the Dutch region, government and academia have a primary interest in supporting agri-food innovation. Characteristic of this is the establishment of spaces dedicated to agri-food innovation with related intermediary organisations, advisory services, personnel training etc.|
In the German economy agri-food SMEs play a much lesser role.
|“Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo [located in a neighbouring to Euregio Rhein-Waal cross-border region ‘Euregio Rhein-Maas-Nord’] is one of the six Greenports in the Netherlands with a high concentration of agribusiness and the only campus of such kind outside the western economic core of the country.” (University actor from the Dutch region and cross-border innovation broker)|
|Key innovation partners for SMEs||SMEs in the Dutch region see academic institutions as a main innovation partner therefore seeking cooperation (in fewer instances—with research institutes). In cooperation with academic institutions, the SMEs particularly need know-how or facilities (e.g., lab or advanced equipment).|
In contrast, SMEs in the German region consider other SMEs and larger businesses key innovation partners. This is because SMEs tend to believe that traditional universities are rather theoretical and therefore disconnected from their business reality. Our data however indicated that this tendency is slowly changing—in many ways also thanks to increasing innovation-oriented multi-actor research funding of the EU.
|“We told this research institute about our idea—they were fascinated. We soon got the funding and combined our knowledge … They have absolutely top people there and excellent connections. That helped tremendously to get the right people at the right moment for the right procedures, so in two years we got everything in place.” (SME from the Dutch region) |
“Large companies naturally have a great deal of know-how and often play a major role in what goes on the market. … These are just things that no small companies do. … That is often the ‘why’ for building a consortium—it is attractive for small companies to work with big ones.” (University actor and innovation broker from the German region)
|Intermediaries as a link versus direct contact||In the Dutch region, innovation brokers play a pivotal role as intermediaries between academic institutions and SMEs. SMEs often get in touch with innovation brokers when they need funding, particular knowledge, expanding their network and marketing products, not least because of their network. Direct cooperation between SMEs and academic institutions rarely occurs.|
In the German region cooperation between academic institutions and SMEs tends to be direct without resorting to intermediaries. In rare instances organisations with an innovation broker function such as IHK (Chamber of Commerce) or a business development agency might be involved in arranging the cooperation. Interestingly, German SMEs tend to strategically use their membership in professional associations and place-based networks to acquire innovation support.
|“In the Netherlands, SMEs generally access external knowledge and relevant partners through a mediator. What does a mediator mean? [Here in the German region], we are also employed as agents who look for companies and also mainly on the Dutch side. Here on the German side less so.” (University actor and innovation broker in the German region)|
“We have eleven institutes at the university, which naturally maintain their contacts with the industries that are important to them. Departments also have many contacts through their alumni network.” (University actor and innovation broker in the German region)
|Nature of cooperation between academic institutions and SMEs and its impact on co-learning and knowledge exchange||Strategic and continuous cooperation between academia, industry, and government (e.g., Triple Helix) is more common in the Dutch region (and in the Netherlands as whole). This kind of cooperation is a new way of working where innovation projects are jointly designed and implemented. Dedicated physical spaces are sometimes provided for such cooperation. |
In the German region, the Third Mission is part of academic institutions’ functions. The main difference is that Third Mission implies more ad-hoc than continuous cooperation and features clear-cut boundaries between institutions.
|“You see many physical places in the Netherlands, where businesses, educational institutions, public authorities—three pillars of Triple Helix—share the space. One is ‘Brightlands Campus’ in Venlo, which focusses on healthy food and healthy living. … I guess, such places are something typically Dutch. ” (University actor from the Dutch region, innovation broker)|
“[As a knowledge transfer office] we connect business with university and vice versa starting from student projects and bringing students into jobs to connecting ideas in SMEs with the expertise in a university.” (University actor and innovation broker from the German region)
|Multifunctional institutions providing innovation support to businesses versus specialised organisations providing innovation support||In the Dutch region, financial institutions (e.g., banks, regional development agencies funded by government to carry out investment activities) perform multiple functions such as financial, regional development, brokering innovation activities. Such an institution can therefore support SMEs in various ways: funding their activities, networking and matchmaking, consulting etc.|
Due to different institutional structures, such organisations function as separate in the German region. Public banks can fund individual business activities, but they have limited business development functions. Other organisations (e.g., Chambers of Commerce) are responsible for fostering regional development, which also includes SME support schemes. Generally different kinds of support are provided by different institutions in the German region.
|“Development agencies are part of Dutch public banks. These agencies often take part in our projects. On the German side everything is organised a bit differently. In the last two years I got in touch with a public investment bank in North Rhein-Westphalia. However, this bank does only financing and has limited development tasks. It is a pity that these are so separated because there should be a straightforward linkage from development into public finance and into venture capital. Organisations like the Wirtschaftsförderung in Germany provide support for SMEs in innovation.” (Cross-border innovation broker)|
“We try to work together with other cluster organisations. That is why we want to cooperate with IHK and Wirtschaftsförderung in Germany, but it is rather difficult because they have a different focus compared to what we have in the Netherlands.” (Innovation broker, Dutch region)
|Mindset of key actors in relation to business practices and innovation||Regional actors in the Dutch region were often referred to as more open-minded, having a flexible mindset, willing to experiment and learn, thinking in non-linear terms, agile and flexible in cooperation. |
At the same time, the actors in the German region were predominantly described as more formal, structured in their work approaches and quality- and data-driven.
|“German partners tend to have a different approach and they, for example, make us commit to establishing firm regulations and sticking to them. The project gains from it. Working together with partners like that keeps you focussed on the agreed indicators, methods and processes. We have different qualities but together they make a great combination.” (SME from the Dutch region)|
|Strength||How the Regional Context Factors Limit or Enable This Strength|
|Significance of agri-food innovation and associated concentration of academic and practitioner expertise||The agri-food sector, innovation and agri-food start-ups play a particularly important role in the Dutch region (as well as at the national level). A vast amount of academic and practitioner know-how around agri-food topics has been accumulated during the continuous search for best practices and technological advances. Various innovation support is available, including funding of regional innovation clusters, hubs or accelerators on water use, biomass, food etc., as well as (partial) funding of innovation brokers and their organisations. In the German region, other industries like automobile, engineering, ICT are prioritised by regional and national governments; agri-food is much less important.|
|Strong innovation partners and associated strategic academia-industry-government cooperation||Triple Helix cooperation was found to be typical in the Dutch region (as well as nationally). Regional and national governments tend to strategically plan, fund and promote it. An example is funding of physical spaces dedicated to enhancing this type of cooperation (e.g., campuses or so-called valleys, like Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo (www.greenportvenlo.eu/campus, accessed on 9 November 2020). In the German region, cooperation tends to be project-based and ad hoc. German traditional universities in particular are still seen as rather theoretical and less oriented towards business realities. Unlike them, Dutch traditional universities are perceived as very entrepreneurial and often connected with innovation clusters, hubs or accelerators.|
|Manifold intermediary organisations facilitating innovation processes||In the Dutch region, intermediary organisations are often funded by regional or national governments to stimulate innovation processes. Our data showed that several innovation brokers are in some ways (e.g., legal, administrative, financial) connected to local, regional—or in one case even European—government that vested them with additional functions. Such organisations are perceived by all actors as versatile and important for effective cooperation. In the German region (and in Germany), government tends to engage in agri-food innovation to a much lesser extent. The somewhat comparable IHK has a much wider portfolio.|
|Capacity of professional associations and place-based networks to support innovation||Professional associations are traditionally rather influential in German industry and government circles, and membership in such associations and networks is common. Through them German SMEs can obtain direct access to resources that would have been difficult to access otherwise.|
|Direct interaction between academic institutions and SMEs||Universities of Applied Sciences have always been more practice-oriented in Germany. They cooperate directly with SMEs through their Third Mission offices, often on a task basis (e.g., accessing specific know-how, facilities or advanced equipment). This has the advantage of a more targeted and potentially more efficient, problem-driven interaction.|
|Multifunctional institutions providing innovation support||In the Dutch region, organisations involved in agri-food innovation tend to have multiple functions, for example networking, consulting, financing etc. This fosters a more coordinated and effective support for SMEs and can enhance synergies. The versatility of such organisations allows to reduce the silo effect and risk of disconnection that can be a problem with more dedicated single function organisations that are characteristic of Germany. A notable exception are German IHKs.|
|Open-mindedness, and flexible mindsets supporting adaptive management||Common features of the Dutch mindset and culture are willingness to learn, non-linear thinking and associated flexibility. These very characteristics are deemed key ingredients of successful innovation projects and processes.|
|More formal and structured mindset fostering goal orientation and providing planning security||More precise (data-oriented), formal and quality-driven mindset are typical of German approaches. In line with that, innovation actors from the German region were characterised in terms of their well-structured and consequent way of working.|
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Knickel, M.; Neuberger, S.; Klerkx, L.; Knickel, K.; Brunori, G.; Saatkamp, H. Strengthening the Role of Academic Institutions and Innovation Brokers in Agri-Food Innovation: Towards Hybridisation in Cross-Border Cooperation. Sustainability 2021, 13, 4899. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13094899
Knickel M, Neuberger S, Klerkx L, Knickel K, Brunori G, Saatkamp H. Strengthening the Role of Academic Institutions and Innovation Brokers in Agri-Food Innovation: Towards Hybridisation in Cross-Border Cooperation. Sustainability. 2021; 13(9):4899. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13094899Chicago/Turabian Style
Knickel, Marina, Sabine Neuberger, Laurens Klerkx, Karlheinz Knickel, Gianluca Brunori, and Helmut Saatkamp. 2021. "Strengthening the Role of Academic Institutions and Innovation Brokers in Agri-Food Innovation: Towards Hybridisation in Cross-Border Cooperation" Sustainability 13, no. 9: 4899. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13094899