An interview with Dr. Jonathan Loeffler, CEO of Steinbeis 2i GmbH
Dr. Jonathan Loeffler is the CEO of Steinbeis 2i GmbH and an expert when it comes to intercompany transfer at an international level. In an interview for TRANSFER magazine, he provides insights into the advantages of knowledge and technology transfer between business enterprises, the ways in which it is different on a European scale, and why professional support is essential for the transfer process.
Hello Dr. Loeffler. How does transfer work between companies, for example in research consortia, and what role does the innovation process play at SMEs?
Within the innovation process, knowledge and technology transfer between companies provides an important point of overlap as a way of overcoming obstacles, including technological and financial challenges, which individual companies can’t manage by themselves. An example: For a European R&D consortium, the project can often involve mapping an entire value chain for a product. The tasks and skills of each of the partners are complementary and because of that, they promote knowhow sharing. With such projects, everyone stands to benefit from everyone else, so transfer can take place between all partners.
The companies themselves play an important role, particularly when it comes to the exploitation of the results of research and launching products. The companies can include developers, suppliers, producers, or the end-users – who’ll for example try out and evaluate prototypes. So knowledge within a consortium is shared in a targeted manner and intellectual property is defined at the start of the project and captured in a consortium agreement.
Often SMEs don’t have all the in-house resources and skills they require to go through all the steps themselves. Intercompany transfer processes give these companies new ways to move things forward, so they can accelerate the next stages of product development.
What advantages does intercompany transfer bring to the companies involved, but also what are the challenges?
There are three things: creativity, trust, and commercial viability! The process of transferring knowledge or technology from one company to another opens the door to something new, but it also takes commitment because it’s of major strategic importance to future products, so ultimately it has to be financially viable. It’s complex because success depends on lots of factors. Classic customer-supplier relationships aren’t valid any more. Instead, it’s about collaboration in a partnership of equals so you can form a successful innovation alliance.
Because R&D projects involve all partners pursuing common goals and committing themselves to working together over an extended period of time, new expertise or technologies can be channeled more quickly and more effectively into ongoing developments and exploitation of that expertise or technology. So the benefits come from the time and money that’s saved. That said, this is only possible – and here lies the challenge – if companies are not direct competitors. Mutual trust is a really important factor here.
For example with the Forwarder 2020 research project, there are 14 partners from six countries working on innovations for use in sustainable forestry. This has already resulted in the development of an innovative transporter crane spanning five equally innovative modules. It’s currently undergoing live testing with the aim of improving energy efficiency and doing more to protect the forest floor. The companies involved in the project include three forestry firms and five component manufacturers.
Is knowledge and technology transfer in any way different when it takes place between companies on a European level?
When SMEs collaborate with European partners they gain access to developments, technologies, and expertise that in all probability they wouldn’t have unearthed in their own countries. The international setting makes it possible to quickly get into new markets. EU research and innovation funding revolves around research into excellence, so it brings SMEs into contact with really successful partners who are innovative and one step ahead when it comes to key enabling technologies and technology trends. In projects of a strategic nature, companies can influence political areas with their innovations.
Which overall parameters do you believe need to be fulfilled for intercompany transfer to work, not just on a domestic level but also internationally?
It’s important to have professional support with the transfer process. Supporting agents such as cluster organizations, the chambers of industry and commerce, and transfer networks can act as neutral stakeholders and play a crucial role in getting the process underway and providing support on the journey. Practice shows that technology and know-how transfer really does work between SMEs. To keep supporting the process in the future, further funding programs and instruments are needed and this will require the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises. Plotting a course for programs that works in favor of big companies or only focuses on fundamental research would be going in the wrong direction. Europe needs competition that is fueled by SMEs. At the same time, on a domestic level we need to sensitize people to European collaboration.