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Increasing regional competitiveness through developing the Knowledge Axis in Limburg


Overview of innovation policies in Limburg

Several years ago the Province of Limburg developed the strategy to support campus development as the way to increase regional competiveness. Implementing Triple Helix governance structures and R&D infrastructures involved quite some regional policy investments. This overview of recent developments concern further steps in this regional strategy and results in terms of:

  • strengthening the activities of higher education institutes at the three campuses (the third pillar of the triple-helix cooperation);
  • joint campus promotion with the brand name ‘Brightlands’;
  • a first batch of 6 projects have been selected of the KnowledgeAxis Limburg programme;
  • cross-border projects;
  • local initiatives coordinated at the sub-regional (NUTS3) level;
  • and a new financial instrument to improve the access to funding for SMEs in Limburg (LBDF).

The considerable investments made by the provincial government in the development and support of the three campuses in Limburg as co-locations, or Science-Industry clusters of R&D activity have been central in several regional innovation strategy documents and programmes in Limburg over the past few years. The recent strengthening of campus activities by Maastricht University and other high-education institutes has complemented the triple-helix structures. New research departments, institutes, R&D infrastructures, and new bachelor and master programmes in science have started at the three campus locations in 2014.  In the same year the Limburg campuses have been named Brightlands - “At Brightlands we live to find solutions to the great global challenges in materials, health and nutrition”. Leading international researchers, entrepreneurs, and students work together on healthy and sustainable solutions, a cooperation that crosses scientific, geographical, and organizational boundaries. Currently, Brightlands hosts two campuses: Brightlands Chemelot Campus with a focus on (biobased and biomedical) performance materials and Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus with a focus on health. The Greenport Campus in Venlo is planned to be the third Brightlands Campus and a potential fourth would be the Smart Services Hub.
In 2013 the educational institutions in the Limburg region had presented their ideas in a joined strategic document ‘Knowledge Axis Limburg’ (‘KennisAs Limburg’). The initiative can be seen as Limburg’s programme to execute the Smart Specialisation Strategy, which aims to link the campus developments to each other (cross-overs between health, advanced materials and agro-food) and embed them into their wider regional innovation ecosystem through smart fields of application which address sub-regional and societal challenges. The first 6 proposals have been selected. One of them relates to the Aachen-Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials (AMIBM) which has started at the Chemelot Campus in 2013. The initiators, Maastricht University (UM) and RWTH Aachen University, have attracted the professors and research staff and acquired the research equipment. The partnership with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (Fraunhofer IME) in Aachen has also been developed further.
The developments at Maastricht Health Campus have also progressed. For example, new academic research teams have been attracted, and the scannerlab building within the Brains Unlimited complex is operational. The state-of-the-art whole-body MR scanners provide an integrated platform for the imaging community, where researchers, clinicians, and entrepreneurs work together under one roof on solutions to brain disorders.

Governance of innovation policy in Limburg

The Province of Limburg (the regional government authority) includes an elected council (four-year term), which has very limited legislative powers and minor tax-raising powers. Although the Province’s responsibilities regarding education or science are restricted, it has considerable influence and responsibilities regarding the design and implementation of regional innovation strategies and co-funding triple-helix initiatives.
A double triple helix approach is characteristic for the governance of innovation policy in Limburg. It refers to the fact that most of the regional innovation strategies and programmes in Limburg are not only developed by triple helix cooperations, but also implemented and jointly funded. Programme committees, working groups and public-private consortia are some of the forms in which the triple helix co-operations are formalised. This implies that the government (at whatever level) is not dictating policy in a top-down kind of process, but policy is developed and executed jointly by various parties which each have their own specific motives, interests and resources, but find each other in a joint (systemic and participative) initiative.
Another main characteristic is the increased multi-level nature of the governance frameworks. Besides provincial programmes and budget there are various other programmes, strategies and sources of funding that target regions, which are either larger or smaller than the province as a whole. Relevant other levels of governance and programmes remain: South-east Netherlands (Brainport 2020), South Netherlands (which is the level of the EU operational programmes and the Smart Specialisation Strategy), and TTR-ELAt (cross-border innovation policy cooperation). Two policy instruments which have been identified as good practice (e.g by the OECD), are TTC (Top Technology Clusters), which connect strategic networks and business development across borders, and GCS (Grensoverschrijdende Cluster Stimulering), which promotes cooperation between SMEs.
The recently set-up triple helix policy structures at sub-regional level concern: Limburg Economic Development (South-Limburg), Keyport (Central Limburg), and Greenport Venlo (North-Limburg). These structures have resulted in a broad range of initiatives. Besides, co-funding the provincial government has an important role in aligning these initiatives at various policy levels and to assure coherence. 

Recent developments of measures and initiatives in support of Advanced Manufacturing

LimburgMakers is a support measure launched by LIOF, the Province of Limburg and the Chamber of Commerce (merged with Syntens) in 2013 to support innovation in manufacturing SMEs. The programme aims to develop and exploit innovation opportunities with manufacturing companies. In addition to subsidies for innovation project proposals of SMEs, the LimburgMakers programme also includes: vouchers, support for hiring an innovation manager, and an option to apply for a feasibility study. The project combines several demand-side policy instruments. Pitches of ideas and needs by companies, and finding for solutions with students are two new design elements in this package of  instruments.
This last aspect of working with students to address specific demands from manufacturing companies is also central in the approach of CHILL: Chemelot Learning and Innovation Labs. As a Centre of Expertise and Innovative Craftsmanship concerning chemical issues it serves to connect business innovation to learning & education. The educational partners are Arcus College, Leeuwenborgh Opleidingen, ZUYD University of Applied Sciences and Maastricht University. From the business world, DSM and SABIC are partners in CHILL. This centre of problem-based learning and innovation links the expertise at the campus to any innovation question that any company, from any sector might have.
New is also the financial instrument (€60m) to improve the currently problematic access to funding for SMEs in Limburg (LBDF: Limburg business Development Fund), which includes companies which are not linked to any campus.

Note: This short article is one of the outcomes of a series of visits that regional correspondents of the RIM Plus platform are undertaking to regions in EU. The objective of those visits is to raise awareness among the regional policy makers about the RIM Plus and to gather relevant information on regional innovation policies and most recent developments.

The interviews were undertaken by the RIM Plus regional correspondent: René Wintjes (UNU-MERIT, Maastricht University) in September 2014. 

List of interviewees:
Jean Severijns, Projectmanager Economy and Innovation, Province of Limburg
Jan Maatjens, Senior policy advisor Economy and Innovation, Province of Limburg
Joep Geenen, Coördinating Senior Economy en Innovation, Province of Limburg