Great oaks from little acorns grow - but before they can produce wealth and employment, innovative companies need careful nurturing in the early stages.
he overall objective is to facilitate the access of innovative firms to private finance, and to effective means of protecting and exploiting new knowledge, by assisting those who deliver these services to collaborate and exchange experience at European level.
Industrial Liaison Offices (ILOs), for example, support the transfer of new technologies from universities and other public research institutes. In some Member States, national networks of ILOs already exist. "But the administrative and regulatory framework affecting the exploitation of publicly-funded research varies widely from country to country, and to date there is no Europe-wide network," says Manfred Schmiemann of Enterprise DG.
However, most Member States are in the process of introducing more favourable laws, so there is real potential for rapid and widespread improvement in the performance of ILOs. The planned European network will create a platform for the exchange of good practice in industrial collaboration and the creation of spin-out companies. "By bringing together both established technology transfer 'champions' and less experienced ILOs, the network will give the profession a stronger voice, increasing its impact on policy-making," Schmiemann believes.
"Separate analyses by the Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB) identified the same groups as critical to improved innovation performance," says Marc Verlinden. Over the next three years, the EIB's Innovation 2000 initiative will mobilise up to 15 billion, partly for the creation and development of ILOs, incubators and venture capital funds investing in early-stage technology projects. The Commission's action, meanwhile, addresses the 'soft' issues involved in such development, and will help to build the network infrastructure needed to maximise its impact.
"There is huge potential for synergy," says Marc Verlinden. "Through the network, for example, a new incubator fund will gain access to the experience, methods and contacts of existing incubators across Europe." For new ILOs and venture capital funds, as well as new incubators, pan-European networking should greatly reduce the time taken to achieve full effectiveness.
Each of the four networks will be co-ordinated by an experienced and well-respected player in the field concerned. "Their job will be to promote and manage the networks, to recruit members, and to channel membership benefits to them," he explains. "By supporting transnational co-operation, the networks will increase the capacity and professionalism of all four groups of actors."
Through networking, incubators and hatcheries for high-tech start-up companies can learn from one another's successes and failures.
In addition, the Commission is implementing a series of measures designed to support and interconnect the four networks, and to maximise their impact.
"The new networks can join national groupings, as well as existing European networks like I-TEC, CREA and Eurotech Capital(1), for instance, and will integrate related Commission services such as LIFT(2) and the IPR-Helpdesk(3)," says Marc Verlinden. "But we also want to link the four networks together. They have much to learn from one another, share common needs, and serve the same target group of high-tech companies."
Integration is expected to take place under the new brand of Gate 2 Financing (G2F). A central website will provide a meeting-place for the exchange of experience between the networks, as well as delivering information of interest to all of them. It will also offer entrepreneurs a comprehensive on-line business planning and business growth toolbox, and services such as project-investor matching. A parallel series of entrepreneurship seminars and investor workshops will be offered in universities around Europe both to network members and to entrepreneurs, in partnership with the European Venture Capital Association, using providers such as the Antwerp Management School.
A database of Europe's high-tech start-up companies will be developed as a further service. "The absence of any pan-European listing has been a real handicap," says Manfred Schmiemann. The new database, which will be run in part as a commercial directory, will perform three functions - as an information source, as a reference label for the listed companies, and as a tool for the statistical analysis of patterns and trends.
The Commission is confident that the integrated G2F networks will quickly benefit their members by accelerating the flow of client entrepreneurs from universities and business schools to incubators and venture capital funds. From the perspective of European entrepreneurs, meanwhile, G2F will link and extend a number of pilot services to cover the entire range of their business development needs.
(1) Three networks of seed and venture capital funds supported by the European Commission. For information about I-TEC, see 'Innovation = (Technology + People) + Capital', edition 6/99.
(2) Linking Innovation, Finance and Technology
(3) 'A Personal Service', edition 3/99.