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Mittelstand Pioneers – Success Fueled by Value Creating Collaboration

Turning the spotlight on sustainability

For SMEs, having clearly defined innovation strategies and being open to collaboration during the process of innovation are crucial prerequisites for competing successfully as an innovator. Their agile mindset and willingness to forge partnerships underscore the pioneering role SMEs play in leveraging their ideas, projects, and products to lay a foundation for future developments. Not only does this allow SMEs to add decisive impetus, it also shapes their own processes as they transform into New Mittelstand enterprises. An increasingly important role in the process of innovation is now played by sustainability, and it is also in this area, supported by experts at Steinbeis Europa Zentrum, that pioneers are setting some good examples.

Since its foundation 33 years ago, Steinbeis Europa Zentrum has focused on those companies in the SME sector that display a willingness to experiment with new approaches and create something new. With their own focus on research and innovation on a European level, the Steinbeis experts help medium-sized companies to participate in European consortia, also contributing with their ideas and expertise. Not only does this allow the financial risk of development projects to be spread across several pairs of shoulders, it also makes it possible to pool the required interdisciplinary expertise. Also, with the help of European funding, innovations can be brought to market faster where it matters most. An increasing number of startups and spin-offs are now participating in such programs, and it is often an EU project that enables a startup to get off the ground in the first place, partly thanks to the development of new products and services, but also thanks to EU funding.

Steinbeis Europa Zentrum lends support to such pioneering companies and startups by helping with innovation and research projects and ensuring EU funding is available. A prerequisite for this is a willingness to collaborate with others and share know-how. There is a reason for this: It delivers significant benefit bringing external resources on board in areas where companies lack know-how internally. Collaboration partners bring in knowledge and skills you may not possess yourself, or not to a sufficient extent within the company. It is not uncommon for new, jointly developed concepts to lead to groundbreaking technologies or solutions, and further down the line this can result in a pioneering product – as notably demonstrated by a large number of projects supported by Steinbeis Europa Zentrum.

Refrigeration using photovoltaics

Raach Solar Projects develops, supplies, and maintains customized photovoltaic systems worldwide. Since October 2021, the family-owned company from Erolzheim in Baden-Wuerttemberg has been a partner in SOPHIA, an EU project aimed at providing sustainable off-grid energy systems in rural areas of Africa. To this end, the company is developing stand-alone solar power systems based on photovoltaic technology. These can be used to cool or freeze water, medicines, blood plasma, serums, and vaccines at temperatures of between +6°C and -70°C. For a field trial, no less than eight solar-powered refrigerated containers will be developed, built, delivered, and installed in hospitals in four African countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Uganda, and Malawi.

Participating in this research project allows Raach Solar Projects to benefit from a network of companies and research institutes, with which it can also conduct research into new fields of photovoltaic technology. Installing its systems provides Raach Solar Projects with reference projects that will enable the firm to gain entry to new markets. It can also develop new marketing models.

Steinbeis workshop leads to an EU project

Arculus is a startup belonging to Jungheinrich in the field of modular production. Since October 2020, the company has been participating in an EU project called AI REGIO, which focuses on artificial intelligence. Its interest in the project was sparked by an innovation competence workshop carried out by Steinbeis Europa Zentrum. AI REGIO helps SMEs in the manufacturing sector with the integration of artificial intelligence into production processes. Thanks to the involvement of regional digital innovation hubs, applications can be experimented with and networks can be forged between SMEs. Arculus’s participation in the project involves the implementation of an application pilot project in the fields of robotics and predictive analytics. This will allow the company to expand its technology base and reach out to leading European networks working on artificial intelligence and smart manufacturing.

Recycling rare-earth elements

HyProMag, a startup from Pforzheim, specializes in recycling permanent magnets based on rare-earth elements. One of its specialties is the production of magnetic powders, alloys, and sintered magnets using ethically sourced, sustainable, and 100% traceable primary materials. HyProMag was founded in 2021 as part of an EU project called SUSMAGPRO, which focused on the development of sustainable recycling processes and the efficient production of permanent magnets from recovered rare-earth elements.

HyProMag is also participating in a follow-up project called REEsilience, the aim of which is to spawn new market opportunities for critical raw materials produced sustainably in Europe by establishing a reliable and sustainable supply chain for rare-earth magnets in the EU. HyProMag is an important partner within this supply chain, thus making its own contributions to sustainability.

The examples of the success enjoyed by these three companies show how EU projects can act as door openers and enable SMEs and startups to realize their visions as pioneers. Steinbeis Europa Zentrum is acting as a partner in all three projects by looking after aspects such as innovation management, project management, and communications. By establishing collaboration agreements with other important initiatives and EU-funded projects, it also supports consortia with the drafting of business plans and knowledge-sharing.

Open Innovation – The Key to Transformation

As part of the PITCCH project, Steinbeis Europa Zentrum has been working alongside four other European partners to build an open innovation network and bring together major companies (acting as technology seekers) with SMEs and startups (acting as technology providers). Between May 2020 and April 2023, a number of major companies offered cooperation opportunities to SMEs and startups, spanning different sectors in the form of 16 “open innovation challenges.” For each given challenge, one company was selected and offered support with the development of shared open innovation projects. In addition to supporting companies with the collaboration and negotiation process, they were also offered participation in training sessions on sales and marketing, intellectual property rights, and commercialization strategies.

As a result of the program, twelve partnerships were initiated, including ten bilateral agreements between large companies and SMEs, and two trilateral partnerships involving research centers. For example, one collaboration agreement between Siemens Energy and Engineering Ltd from the U.K. looked into different ways to use technology to break down sewage sludge and biomass in order to generate valuable heat in the form of high-pressure (~20 bar/210°C) green processing steam. The experts selected two use cases as a springboard to investigate technical feasibilities and a funding model. With another collaborative project, the focus lay in plastic-free solutions. PROCTER & GAMBLE Italy, which was looking for plastic-free packaging to use with liquid detergents, formed a partnership with CO2BioClean of Eschborn, Germany, which offers access to an innovative, decentralized value chain that uses CO2 as a feedstock for the production of biopolymers.


Dr. Petra Püchner (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Europa Zentrum
Steinbeis EU for YOU (Stuttgart)

Steinbeis IDEA Europe/Institute of the Commissioner for Europe of the
Baden-Wuerttemberg Minister of Economic Affairs, Labor, and Tourism (Stuttgart)

Dr. Jonathan Loeffler (author)
Steinbeis Europa Zentrum
Steinbeis 2i GmbH