The Enterprise Europe Network's third annual conference in Antwerp, Belgium, rewarded four pioneering small businesses that have made outstanding progress in marketing innovative products across borders, thanks to partnerships set up with the Network's support.
Conference participants heard encouraging reports of an expanding Network that is opening doors to markets around the globe for European small businesses. European Commission Vice-president and Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship Antonio Tajani announced the launch of 15 new contact points in China and South Korea.
"European small businesses drive growth and create jobs," he reminded the conference . "As markets become global, an increasing share of SMEs will turn their ideas and energy into exports outside their own countries or the EU… The Enterprise Europe Network can help smooth the way." Foreign exports also have a crucial role to play in strengthening European recovery from the economic crisis.
The three-day event (13-15 October) brought together Network staff members to exchange best practices and develop new tools to support European SMEs. One-quarter of small and medium-sized enterprises in the EU have exported goods or services during the past three years, and this figure is expected to rise. More than two million companies have benefited from the Network's services since it was set up in 2008.
Evidence of how go-getting entrepreneurs are achieving their goals in internationalisation and innovation with the Network's help came at the conference award ceremony, recognising the achievements of outstanding European SMEs who are making the most of their opportunities in the single market. The Enterprise and Industry DG's Director-General Heinz Zourek, and Derrick Gosselin, who heads the cabinet of Kris Peeters, Minister-President of the Flemish government in Belgium, awarded the prizes. The 'Network Stars' went to two successful partnerships facilitated by the Enterprise Europe Network: French electronics firm Westline which teamed up with the Polish engineering company Gryftec, and Belgian entrepreneur Serge Vleeschouwer who signed an agreement with German manufacturer AirMed Plus (see boxes).
Other finalists included the Finnish inventor of the 'snow fork' for measuring the liquid water content of snow; the Danish manufacturer of navigation monitors for ships that have been taken on board in Greece; and a British firm specialising in bone restoration which is investing in a groundbreaking injectable calcium phosphate foam developed in Spain.
New mothers and fathers are easily worried by infant maladies, like frequent vomiting, which may be relatively common but are nonetheless alarming. Serge Vleeschouwer worked with paediatricians in his native Belgium to come up with a simple yet effective remedy that also avoids the need for medication. "I wanted to create something that works," he says.
More than half of three- to four-month-olds suffer from the condition known as gastroesophegeal reflux - which gets worse when the baby is lying flat. So Vleeschouwer's anti-reflux bed allows the infant to sleep at a 40° angle - cutting down vomiting and crying in three-quarters of the cases tested at Brussels University Hospital.
After marketing the Multicare bed across Belgium, the logical next step was to make the product more widely available. Vleeschouwer turned to the Enterprise Europe Network in East Flanders. Network expert Marleen Heyse advised him to try Medica - the world's top medical trade fair - in Düsseldorf, Germany. This contact enabled the entrepreneur to strike a deal with medical device manufacturer AirMed Plus in Bochum. Hospitals and midwives in Germany are now successfully testing the anti-reflux bed for themselves.
Family-owned electronics firm Westline is based close to Paris. Rodica and Mircea Chiorean co-founded the company, which has had great success in France with its SmartDrive-S3, an automation device that controls motors and moving parts in assembly lines for anything from sweets to cars. It enables manufacturers to plan and pre-programme their production schedule, thereby increasing productivity and conserving energy.
The potential was clear, but the Chioreans needed advice on how to exploit it outside France. That help came from the Enterprise Europe Network in Versailles. "This is a truly global and multipurpose product," declares local Network expert Pierre Arribe. "But it was hard for the company to find distributors. At the Network, we do the work for them." Using the Network's business matchmaking database, and working with its branch at the West Pomeranian University of Technology in northern Poland, he identified Gryftec, a systems engineering firm that was on the lookout for an innovative new product. The SmartDrive device is now available for the first time in central and eastern Europe.
Rodica Chiorean says this is just the start of Westline's potential cross-border export expansion. "The Network delivered quick results, and we will continue to work with them as our company grows."
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