Accelerating the Innovation Process through Centres of Competence

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What are Centres of Competence? 

A Centre of Competence (CoC) is defined as a 'structured, long-term research and innovation (R&I) collaboration in strategically important areas between academia and industry with frequent interactions with the public sector. A CoC focuses on strategic research agendas, support strong interactions between science and industry and provides truly collaborative research with a medium to long-term perspective' (TAFTIE, 2016). They are usually located in universities and focus on regional strategic sectors in applied research projects in collaboration with leading regional businesses.

Centres of Competence (CoC) are different from Centres of Excellence (CoE). In contrast to a Centre of Competence, which focuses on applied research, a Centre of Excellence aims to develop cutting-edge basic research. Indeed, a CoE aims to carve out new avenues for research, respond to societal challenges, develop top-notch research environments, and train new talented researchers. (Academy of Finland)

The main operational objective of Centres of Competence is to strengthen university-industry collaboration thus accelerating the innovation process and leading to economic growth. The university-industry collaboration is reinforced through: 

  • Having the private sector in the management and governance structures,
  • Dedicating services to the private sector,
  • Steering the academia’s work towards more applied research,
  • Facilitating interregional linkages thanks to the participation of international companies. 

Centres of Competence can also perform activities separate from the operation of R&D programmes and can focus on:

  • Exploitation of research results by means of Intellectual Property Right (IPR) and spin-offs,
  • Training of PhDs and master students,
  • Dissemination of research results via publications, conferences etc,
  • Stimulation of networking and knowledge transfer,
  • Acquisition of third-party funding (including EU sources),
  • Provision of research infrastructures,
  • Provision of market intelligence (TAFTIE, 2016).

Interreg Europe good practices provide insights for policy learning

From the Interreg Europe project BRIDGES, the Bioeconomy Science Centre (BioSC) is a centre of competence dedicated to conduct basic, applied, and industry-oriented research related to the bioeconomy in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. The centre of competence emerged from the leadership of 4 universities and research centres with the objective to reinforce links with industry and to develop new bio-based processes and products. The centre of competence offers services such as research infrastructures, project development, teaching and training, and business support services. The BioSC has been successful in establishing national and international cooperation networks and in conducting industrial collaborative projects. 

From the Interreg Europe project INNO INFRA SHARE, the iMec in Flanders is an example of a world class high-tech innovation infrastructure in a leading European region in research and development (R&D). Its experience is indicative of a potential path forward to connect international researchers doing R&D on Key Enabling Technologies (KETs), namely nano-electronics and digital technologies. In addition to providing an environment conducive to R&D, its experience in developing bilateral contract research and accessing extra-regional funding is valuable for many European regions.

From the Interreg Europe project INKREASE, the National Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre (NIEC) at the Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania is a science centre that facilitates the provision of research services to the business sector and industry acting as a 'one-stop-shop' to promote science-industry collaboration. The science centre offers three different types of research and business development services, namely in research for business projects (management of research, experimental development, and innovation projects, prototyping…), for the establishment of new businesses (consultation on the business creation, development of new products…), and for the protection of intellectual property (licensing, advisory services, technology patent analysis…).

These three good practices offer three key insights for policymakers aiming to design Centres of Competences such as: 

  1. Centres of Competence must be flexible in funding research projects with different funding mechanisms at different Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs),
  2. a market-oriented integrated 'one-stop-shop' centre of competence must offer different types of services to promote science-industry collaboration, and
  3. international cooperation through bilateral contract research must be a strategic operational objective for Centres of Competence. 

From Finland to Slovenia: a success story of policy change

Learning from interregional exchanges with partners from the Interreg Europe project BRIDGES, Soča Valley Development Centre (SI) integrated the Centre of Competence in aquaculture into the national CLLD programme (community led local development). The CoC in aquaculture focuses on repopulating endemic fish species (Marble trout and Adriatic grayling) as well as support local stakeholders in developing new products and markets. The inspiration came from Kantola industrial estate and Woodpolis centre of competence in Kainuu region from Finland. As pointed out by Ninetta Chaniotou, BRIDGES project leader, 'the Kantola good practice demonstrates that a localised centre of competence, supported by a regional innovation platform ensuring specialised knowledge flows, can inspire other regions.' Miro Kristan, Soča Valley Development Centre, highlights that the approach to adopt a 'demand-led, excellence-based and bottom-up approach to promote SMEs potential and interactions with the research sector were key. It is important to emphasize that in our case aquaculture is a niche sector with microcompanies only and that the classical approach towards CoC would not be appropriate'.

In Bulgaria, an Interreg Europe peer review to support Centres of Competence and Centres of Excellence

An Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platform

was organised for the Executive Agency Science and Education for Smart Growth Operational Programme, Ministry of Education and Science of Bulgaria, on 18-19 June 2019 in Sofia, Bulgaria. The peer review focused on the management models, governance structures, private sector involvement, extra-regional cooperation, and financial models related to Centres of Excellence and Centres of Competence in Bulgaria.

During the interregional peer review, the peers coming from the Interreg Europe projects BRIDGES and INNO INFRA SHARE suggested ways to effectively foster science-industry collaboration. For instance, they recommended for the Centres of Competence to hire key account managers to work on expert level with private companies and to involve the private sector in the definition of services. The Executive agency is planning to integrate the peers’ recommendations in the Smart Growth Operational Programme 2021-2027.

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