Networking for Innovation: the Materialcluster Styria
A regional cluster uses innovation to create competitive advantage and promote inward investment.
Upper Styria is a region which suffered greatly from the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s as, at that time, the economy was almost totally dependant on this single sector. However in terms of economic restructuring, Upper Styria was in a relatively good position. It had a concentration of educational and research institutions and a very well trained workforce. In addition, there was an exceptionally strong commitment from the political and economic leaders of Styria and the Federal Government to the development of the region.
Some twenty years later, the process of restructuring has produced the desired results, as the regional economy has diversified and this has been accompanied by a dramatic fall in the levels of unemployment. Now, there is also a growing interest in research and development as a way of extending these positive changes. A major strength of the region from the standpoint of industrial research is materials like metals, plastics, oxide materials and composites. In order to develop this area of research to its full potential, the Materialcluster Styria was formed.
The project in action
Its main partners in the Materialcluster Styria are the Economic Promotion Agency (Steirische WirtschaftsförderungsgesmbH) which is responsible to the provincial government of Styria for technological and economic development, the Business Park of Upper Styria, (Wirtschaftspark Obersteiermark) that is in charge of regional development, and the University of Leoben, which deals with metallurgy, mining and materials. The University not only offers its expertise in research and development but also provides the technical direction for the Cluster.
The Materialcluster Styria is essentially an agent of innovation that, with its industrial and research partners, promotes forward-looking projects in key areas of materials such as surfaces and coatings which help these members to gain competitive advantages. In addition, it has initiated or supported many projects with other clusters, as well as with businesses from new Member States like Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.
Apart from generating such projects, the Cluster is an obvious source of knowledge and competence in research and development. It assists the transfer of technology and “know-how” and provides advice on financing and subsidies from national, EU and international programmes that can support R&D.
The Cluster is also extending the scope of its operations through its marketing and by inter-disciplinary networking across sectors. Its communications and awareness-raising activities are based on a web site and a regular newsletter but they also include visits to individual companies and trade fairs, study trips, meetings and events such as round tables that involve industrialists and regional developers. In 2005, the Materialcluster Styria itself organized 12 education events, congresses and meetings on themes related to R&D that brought together a total of almost 500 interested business leaders.
The Cluster is projecting an image that reflects the dynamic developments that it is pioneering and this is also aimed at inducing companies to invest in, or relocate to, Styria. It also provides a complete advisory and coaching service to enterprises wishing to set up in the region that covers site management and the creation of an infrastructure using local or regional suppliers.
The long-term aims of the Cluster include the positioning of Styria as a European Region of Excellence in relation to materials. Thus, the networking amongst businesses, universities, non-university research centres and public and commercial institutions will be intensified. It is also intended to expand the Materialcluster Styria into an Austrian network of competence that will have a high visibility in Europe. Finally, the marketing of the “Materials Region Styria” will continue and it is hoped that many new companies will be attracted to the region and that they, in turn, will make a significant contribution to the economic and social infrastructure of Styria.