Where career and business development take off

A graduate scheme is placing specially trained students in small businesses in lower Austria, giving the students the chance to apply their technological expertise and the businesses the chance to boost their innovation levels. The students or ‘innovation assistants’ have been helped onto the career ladder, while the businesses have gained new skills and developed new products.

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“Thanks to the Innovation Assistant project, we have been able to expand from a small to a medium-sized company. We have made several technical improvements and have invested in raising the level of internal processes to a highly professional standard.”
Herbert Wimberger, WIMTEC Elektronische Steuerungs- und Meßgeräte GmbH

At the beginning of the project nine in ten companies in the Niederösterreich region had fewer than 50 employees, making it rare for the companies to have the necessary resources to plan strategically. SMEs usually relied solely on their managing director or owner with respect to innovation-related activities. However, these managers often had their hands full with running the day-to-day business and did not have enough time to sufficiently develop and implement innovation and business strategies. The region also faced brain drain towards nearby Vienna. Through this scheme, companies are given the impetus to become more competitive through strategic planning and innovation, and as many as six in every ten graduates are given the option of staying on in the company.

Creating and seizing opportunities

Interested businesses applied to the Niederösterreich region by submitting a proposal for a concrete innovation project. Usually between 10 and 20 applicants are approved each year. The region selects these proposals after having sent an official to visit the company and discuss the project with the managing director. Once selected, the company then recruits its own Innovation Assistant, either through direct contacts or by placing a vacancy notice in a newspaper.

The Innovation Assistant is trained up by a specially designed post-graduate training programme in “Innovation Management” established at the Danube University Krems. This is fully funded and includes project management, innovation management, presentation skills, interview techniques, leadership skills, creativity techniques, and team building.

In one instance, a saw-producing company, Prinz, hired an innovation assistant to investigate ways of making its saws more efficient through design. The project made it possible for an engineering graduate to join the company and to stay on once the scheme was over. Had the funding not been available, this small company would have found it too expensive to hire an engineer.

Expanding innovation, expanding benefits

Through this scheme, some 70 innovation projects were carried out in small and medium-sized companies in Lower Austria and some 50 graduates attended innovation management training courses.

The results from these projects bear out the value of the scheme. Major progress in new product development was achieved in 80% of the cases. At least one new job was created in the vast majority of participating companies and three to four jobs were created on average.

The Innovation Assistant’s contract was extended in the majority of cases and half the assistants now occupy a managerial role. Other benefits include improved production processes, increased sales thanks to new products, improved business innovation strategies, and raised morale and ambition among the whole staff body.

In 2008 the funding scheme received a RegioStars Award for innovation from the European Commission's Directorate-General for Regional Policy. In the current INTERREG IVC project ERIK ACTION, the “Innovation Assistant” is the most attractive Good Practice for transfer and will be implemented in several ERIK ACTION partner regions.

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