An interview with Stefan Gaier, director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Innovation Management
For many years, the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Innovation Management has been overseeing the networking of small and mediumsized companies as part of the ZIM program (the government’s central innovation program for SMEs). This program is funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and its aim is to pool the know-how and skills of medium-sized technology experts, research institutions, and universities. It certainly works: On May 18, a ZIM network called Subsea Monitoring, which was set up by the Steinbeis Enterprise, was honored by the BMWi for its outstanding commercial contributions to the success of research and development projects. TRANSFER magazine spoke to Stefan Gaier, director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center involved in the project, about the importance of networking for innovation at SMEs in general, and how this is reflected in the success of this specific project.
Hello, Mr. Gaier. How can individual enterprises belonging to the German Mittelstand benefit from networking?
Small and medium-sized companies are often leaders in their field of technology. They typically offer individual components within a specific technology market. But for any company, there often comes a point where it runs into technology barriers, especially if it wants to combine individual components with other system elements. It may also have conceptual difficulties in designing end-to-end or single-source solutions for a specific application. Even the most successful SME can be simply too small to deal with the technology challenges and industry needs of a global market.
In which fields of technology or sectors of industry have you set up networks? What’s the main emphasis of your networking activities?
It can’t be a coincidence that the collaborations we oversee involve the kinds of technology that are moving people at the moment – things like modern travel solutions, digital transformation, and energy supply. In the field of electric vehicles, for example, a network called LOHCmobil is currently being set up and managed. The aim of this network is to provide help with the development of zero-emission drives for marine vessels and railway vehicles, so they can be integrated into future travel systems. Then there’s an alliance called InQ (Intelligent Quarter) which looks at digital transformation against the backdrop of changes in the energy supply and travel solutions. Drawing on these changes makes it possible to develop products and business models for the urban districts of the future. A variety of companies and research bodies are involved in the collaboration networks we manage, looking at the specific development of innovative products. By pooling their specific core competences, we can exploit the maximum potential to innovate. As well as research and development, another important area is how the innovations are marketed and sold. We help companies develop business models and support them in setting up shared selling structures. For example we used the iMod network to found a spin-off selling company that now acts as an international system supplier providing autonomous infrastructure solutions.
The Subsea Monitoring network was set up by your Steinbeis Enterprise under the ZIM program, and it’s just won an award from the BMWi. Can you tell us more about the project?
The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper ran a story on the Subsea Monitoring project two years ago and described it as a “high-tech diving expedition.” That’s not far wrong, since the 20 partners in the network do indeed develop and market high-tech products, so-called subsea monitoring systems. These are used to assess, observe, and monitor the existence of raw materials under the sea, as well as environmental conditions and the infrastructure. There are three key areas: the detection and mining of marine raw materials, the use of marine energy sources, and the monitoring of environmental parameters. Together, they hold huge growth potential for companies involved in deep sea technology. The problem is, there’s no real leader in Germany in terms of system suppliers, basically because the companies are too small. This is reflected by their small share of the global market. German companies do produce individual components such as sensors and communication systems. But in terms of the overall systems customers require for deep sea activities, which are highly complex, the German companies couldn’t previously supply what they needed. That’s now changed. The Subsea Monitoring project allowed us to pull together a network consisting of different companies involved in the area, and that made it possible to combine their individual competences and emerging technologies to create systems, which also fueled further developments for individual products. This made it possible to put some big R&D projects in place with a budget of over 10 million euros; specific key components and products have now been developed for the German marine technology market and these have been combined into overall systems. One example of this is SMIS (“subsea monitoring via intelligent swarms”) – an innovative system for the efficient, autonomous monitoring of large underwater areas based on swarm intelligence. The system encompasses several underwater vehicles, an underwater tracking station, and a surface vehicle. These are used by a research vessel or, if necessary, a shore-based control station and everything is monitored on the basis of swarm techniques. The thing that’s unique about this system is the way it uses swarms, even down to a depth of 6,000 meters. The system can be used for deep sea marine research but it can also be applied to commercial marine systems, so this is a highly promising development that addresses lots of important markets: marine raw material extraction; long-distance exploration for a variety of pipelines, energy cables, and communication cables; or airplane wreckage searches. Another result that has emerged from the work of the network is a underwater testing field. This was created for developing and testing new marine technology. And this is just the first step. The plan for the future is to set up an underwater technology center. Some important foundation work has also been carried out on creating a brand and PR. The network had its own trade show booth at the important Oceanology International show in London. For the first time, an important objective was achieved at this trade show by establishing a brand to go with the network. It was a successful opportunity to convey “Subsea Monitoring made in Germany” branding and gain awareness. This branding will be systematically developed, and it will be a major opportunity for the network to position the systems developed through the network and promote these in international markets.
Just one final question: What would your advice be to a small or medium-sized company if it’s toying with the idea of tapping into the benefits of a collaboration network for its own purposes?
Companies are more than welcome to contact our Steinbeis Consulting Center. We’ll check if there’s an opportunity to work with an existing network or whether it might make sense to set up a new network.
Stefan Gaier has been an active member of the Steinbeis Network for many years. In 2005 he set up the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Innovation Management, of which he is also the director. His SCC helps public bodies with strategic planning and innovation projects; it also provides companies with management consulting services and funding advice. The emphasis of his work lies in managing strategic projects and helping companies to network in the high-tech sector.