ARC Fund, organized on behalf of ECAbit the 4th International Conference Advancing Innovation in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (AIECA 2009) The Technical University – Gabrovo, Enterprise Europe Network – Bulgaria and the Municipality of Gabrovo were co-organizers of the event, which was held on 24-26 September in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. AIECA 2009 was supported by the World Bank’s infoDev program and iDisc global incubator initiative.
The regional conference of the Eastern European and Central Asian Business Incubators and Technology Parks Network brought together more than 70 participants from 17 countries throughout Europe and Central Asia that shared local and international experience about business incubation and innovation in the ECA region.
In the last two decades, most of the ECA countries have been undergoing a transformation from planned to market economies. Fostering entrepreneurship and innovation through bringing together academia, business and government has become a main challenge for strengthening the market orientation and competitiveness of economies in the region. Business incubators, technology/science parks and technology transfer offices play a key role in the processes of commercialization of science and are crucial for development of national and regional innovation clusters.
Need for new public policy to support academia-industry-government relationships
Currently, in most of the ECA countries specialized financial support for incubating activities, including for academic entrepreneurs, is practically nonexistent. At the same time, in most of these countries there is no or only rudimentary necessary legislation on academic entrepreneurship, – fragmented among non-coordinated sector policies (e.g. Belarus, Bulgaria, FYR Macedonia, and the Russian Federation).
Most of the existing incubators in ECA rely primarily on external funding on a project basis , working predominantly as not-for-profit organizations. There are much less incubators that rely on their own profit through the generation of start-ups with potential growth opportunity. However, since the beginning of 2000, the intensification of business incubators and technology/science parks activities aiming at fostering the innovation process in ECA countries put emphasis on the need of new public policy to support the academia-industry-government relations.
The need for closer links between science and industry in the ECA countries and the important role business incubators and technology parks have to play in this situation was underlined in many of the presentations at the conference. The need for national policies on business incubation should be combined with support measures for developing entrepreneurial activity among business actors and the academic community themselves.
Some of the lessons learned from the ECAbit members’ activity:
- Regional economic development policy and value chain define the incubator mission;
- Specialized incubators are more effective for setting up local innovation networks including links to R&D;
- Incubators start from within, not outside. Donors should support but not drive the creation of incubators;
- Incubators and incubator planners have to understand positioning and value proposition – and its monitoring – within both the non-commercial and commercial context;
- Skill set of manager at founding stage differs from manager at growth stage (i.e. donor vs. client focus);
- IT incubators are good starting points in ECA for specialized incubators with ‘low-cost labs’
- Specific public policies might serve as an "incubator initiative", which fosters the development of business clusters or particular businesses in various economic branches (e.g. regional policy for alternative tourism supporting the development of new businesses)
At the same time, academic entrepreneurship is still underdeveloped, and even where it exists in the region, it is often misreported and underestimated. Business incubators and technology parks could offer support for commercialization of R&D to academics only if they seek actively commercialization opportunities. In this situation, the internationalization of ECAbit network and of incubators’ activities in general is fundamental for successful and sustainable development of the network and the incubators.
Academic entrepreneurship in Europe
One of the main problems of most of the European universities is the need to find researchers who are interested in the commercialization of their research and who have incentives to do that. The problem is rooted into the structure of European universities, which repeats the disciplinary structure of science and is directed mainly towards two major functions - teaching and research. As a result, this structure is not oriented and could not support the development of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills among students and scientists. The main challenge, faced by the European universities nowadays, is to create linkages between teaching, research and entrepreneurial activity.
Sessions topics: The round table Incubators@Academics: Lessons learnt about the links between education, research and business and the way ahead was focused on enablers and barriers for academic entrepreneurship and the role incubators can play for developing academic spin-offs.
The Municipality of Gabrovo, one of the forerunners in energy efficiency programs in Bulgaria was the co-organizer and initiator of the Intelligent energy and energy efficiency session. The presentations made by different stakeholders demonstrated the results of various activities in this field – administrative and private buildings insulation programs, ‘intelligent’ street lights, financial and institutional support for green energy projects, etc. Most innovative project presented by Gabrovo enterprises, referred to a newly developed installation for cooling and heating of buildings using geothermal energy.
The session Eco-Tourism: From start-up through innovation to regional planning addressed the issues of alternative tourism and the opportunities for technology transfer in the tourist sector. The Mayor of Kavarna Municipality Mr. Tsonko Tsonev demonstrated the success of multi-year efforts in making the town of Kavarna “the rock-capital of the Balkans” as a means of attracting tourists and creating preconditions for economic development in the region.
The session on Eco-tourism attracted the participants’ attention not only with knowledge sharing but also with the opportunity to become acquainted with the practice of two successful examples of alternative tourism. The participants at the conference visited the architectural ethnographic complex “Etara”, an open-air museum, which demonstrates the architecture, the life style and the economic past of Gabrovo region during the 18 and the 19 centuries. The day finished with visit to the Eco-resort for alternative tourism “Kostenkovci”, which offers an unique combination of the Bulgarian old-style village of Kostenkovci with possibilities for eco-path and off-road riding tourism, and “religious” tourism.
The presentation of TOUREG project, funded by FP7 of the European Commission addressed the possibility for improving the competitiveness and strategic position of the tourist-oriented sectors in European regions, through the establishment of a platform for transfer of knowledge based on technological innovation and research in the tourist sector.
Bulgarian Association for Light Aviation (BALA) presented a model for development of alternative tourism, which is still less popular in Eastern Europe. It may be called “flight tourism” and aims at attracting tourists, even in places that are not popular tourist destinations, by offering demonstrational and motivational flights on light aircrafts, gliders and paragliders. ARC Fund and BALA demonstrated in practice the development of "flight tourism” through the organization of Aviationshow on 26 and 27 September, which was attended by over 500 people from the region.
Networking for technology transfe r: AIECA 2009 offered opportunities for discussions and brokerage meetings focused on possible technology transfer projects and ideas.
Members of BALA and some conference participants discussed the possibilities for developing common projects on technology transfer, incl. a project on development and implementation of new technologies in the Bulgarian manufacturers of parts and equipment for light aviation.
With the kind support of Enterprise Europe Network – Bulgaria, ECAbit members met representatives of Bulgarian companies from the regions of Gabrovo and Plovdiv and discussed the possibilities of establishing joint ventures and for export of Bulgarian products.
The major outcomes for ECAbit network development were:
- Adoption of the final version of the constitution of ECAbit, which will govern the membership and relationship within ECAbit. This is an important step towards institutionalization and sustainability of ECAbit. The constitution outlines the main governance and decision-making rules and procedures and introduces membership fees for regular and associate members.
- Strategic planning, including continuation of support and development of existing working groups (Youth innovation, Eco-tourism, Investment readiness and TCNET/training) and starting-up new ones (Quality/Benchmarking and Technology Transfer/Business Matching). The challenge, faced by ECABit is to ensure the sustainability of the working groups and to support the synergies between working groups (for instance technology transfer in the field of tourism, training and tourism, investment readiness and training, etc.). Minimum and maximum objectives and milestones have been defined for all working groups, together with some horizontal activities, responsibility of the coordinating office (relationships with other networks, web-site development, newsletter and others).
- Planning of AIECA 2010 and 2011 events.
The networking opportunities before and during the forum fostered the development of a number of cooperative projects to be developed by different combinations of members. For instance, Uluchay business incubator – Azerbaijan, Civil Society Support Center – Georgia and High-Tech Incubator in Burgas, Bulgaria and a partner from Ukraine will submit a project under the Black Sea Operative Program. The AIECA 2009 gave the opportunity of several new members to the network to get to know other members and to quickly integrate in network initiatives.
Final agenda of the conference (PDF format)
Information sheet summarizing the conference sessions (PDF format)
Media Coverage (in Bulgarian)