Innovation doesn’t exist in isolation. Geographical groupings – or ‘clusters’ – of companies working in the same industry can help to encourage both competition and collaboration, offering benefits for all involved.
These effects are even more pronounced when local research-intensive universities get involved, sharing cutting-edge expertise from academics.
Better yet is when the firms within these clusters go on to form knowledge-sharing networks, enabling the companies to access both insight and equipment that they may otherwise be unable to.
But how do you encourage such networks to develop?
Building with purpose
Facilitating the creation of local networks was one of the challenges that the University faced when establishing the £70 million Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS), which officially opened in 2023.
Based at Bristol & Bath Science Park, IAAPS is a purpose-built facility for pure electric, hybrid electric, battery, internal combustion engine and hydrogen-based propulsion research. As a unique hub for innovation in the area, IAAPS is ideally positioned to act as the focal point for a knowledge network.
In 2016, Dr Felicia Fai and Professor Phil Tomlinson, co-directors of the School's Centre for Governance, Regulation & Industrial Strategy, helped to shed light on what small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the automotive and aerospace industries would find most useful and attractive in IAAPS. This then enabled the University to develop the facility with collaboration in mind from its earliest stages.
Bridging the gap
Felicia and Phil’s report IAAPS: Building Bridges with Small and Medium Sized Firms, written with Dr Marc Betton and MSc student Alicia-Carine Becht Panogiotides, identified the main benefits that SMEs expected to gain from IAAPS, which largely revolved around the opportunities to join networks.
SMEs also indicated that the presence of a global automotive original equipment manufacturer (OEM) at IAAPS would make local networks even more valuable.
Conversely, obstacles to engagement included being ‘unsure of what they might contribute’ and ‘being unaware of the services IAAPS could provide’ – which additionally helped to shape the marketing of the facility.
Recommendations that were implemented from Felicia and Phil's report include:
- Ensuring that all information about IAAPS communicated to the public was clear and focused
- Setting up an onsite knowledge transfer team within the facility
- Holding subsidised events to offer networking opportunities
Thanks to these insights, the University was able ensure that the facility’s launch was supported by large amounts of outreach to the local business community in order to draw in SMEs.
At Phil and Felicia's suggestion, the facility also appointed an entrepreneur-in-residence to facilitate the combination of academic expertise and commercial focus, and to help develop networks based around the local cluster.