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Universities in regional innovation policy

Universities can have an impact upon regions through their contribution to human capital, economic, social and cultural development.

Written by Christian Saublens

Reviewed by David Walburn


The concept

How to implement it?

Step in the RIS process

What can be expected?

A quote


Experts' comments


The concept

Universities, even as a distinct organization from their R&D centres, are part of the research triangle or the quadruple helix innovation system. Indeed, universities can contribute to regional development through their involvement in:

  • training and education;
  • attracting and retaining talent;
  • providing vocational/lifelong training;
  • stimulating R&D+I activities and enhancing innovation through research;
  • entrepreneurship, via activities such as:
    • promoting entrepreneurship;
    • developing new businesses (spin offs);
    • collaborative R&D+I projects;
    • offering high added-value services;
  • leveraging knowledge from:
    • marketing project outcomes;
    • technology/knowledge transfers;
    • small business consulting;
    • placing talented people in SMEs;
  • offering access to local infrastructure including:
    • preincubators;
    • incubators;
    • science/technology parks;
    • laboratories shared with regional players;
    • living labs
  • economic coordination by means of active participation in structures such as:
    • clusters;
    • university/SME interfaces;
    • seed/spin-off capital funds;
  • development of public-private partnerships.


How to implement it?

Involve university representatives in the governance and implementation process by designing ad hoc financial mechanisms. Unfortunately, in some regions there is a disconnection between university excellence and the local economic tissue, as well as a lack of systematic approach to assess potential commercial applications of knowledge created by local universities. Sometimes, universities and enterprises seem to live in two separate worlds. The means of involving universities are critical: often regional public stakeholders face the dilemma of providing additional funding to universities to develop schemes to develop local enterprises or to support local enterprises  in helping them to access  expertise from universities (vouchers, PhD placements, …).


Step in the RIS process

Step 1: analysis of the regional context and potential for innovation

Step 2: governance: ensuring participation and ownership

Step 4: identification of priorities


What can be expected?

  • Aligning universities' activities with local priorities and emerging opportunities;
  • Better collaboration between universities and enterprises;
  • Enhancing knowledge creation;
  • Improving knowledge transfer and absorption by enterprises;
  • Upgrading of skills;
  • Creation of start-ups, based on university findings;
  • Solving problems faced by local enterprises.


A quote

"The university is the institution in society most capable of linking the requirements of industry, technology and market forces with demands of citizenship.” - Gerard Delanty




Mr Christian Saublens


Christian Saublens has more than 30 years of working experience in European trade organizations. Since 1992 he is the Executive Manager of EURADA, the European Association of Development Agencies, a network of 145 organisations. Christian has been involved in the organization of numerous conferences and meetings dealing with all matters related to regional development. He wrote several papers and working documents on business support schemes for SMEs. He played an important role for the dissemination in European regions of concepts such as benchmarking, business angels, investment readiness, proof of concept, clusters, open innovation, financial engineering, crowdfunding, … Several times Christian has been appointed as an expert by the European Commission and the Committee of the Regions.



Experts' comments

For all the rhetoric talked about the great potential for involving universities in regional economic development work – the quotation in these notes from Gerald Delanty is a fine example – the reality is that achieving worthwhile university participation is often difficult.  As the accompanying notes suggest, the potential for good outcomes is considerable, but economic developers need to have a clear idea about the workings and priorities of the universities in their area before attempting to devise programmes of joint working.

Most universities depend primarily on fee income from students – paid either directly on their behalf by governments. There are of course additional revenue streams to support research and other activities, but it would be a mistake to assume that universities have either the funds or the spare human resource to devote to supporting the economy of their region, however much the “demands of citizenship” might make this desirable.

For the most part, meaningful university participation will come at a cost to someone.

There are many examples where national and regional governments have funded university involvement in economic development, eg:

  • Creating niche venture capital funds to help commercialize university research, with management fees flowing to universities to cover administration costs
  • Providing revenue and capital funding to enable universities to operate small business incubators
  • Paying for consultancy services from university staff from various disciplines to work with businesses in the region
  • Financing research and the provision of other services from a university to support the work of a development agency

However, even if government is prepared to do some of these things, there may not be a positive response from all universities. Some universities have no interest in the fortunes of their region and are more concerned with their own international reputation in attracting students or research funds. Local economic development may not fit well with the academic strengths of the university. Individual academics may not see working with businesses or regional bodies as part of their job description.

There are of course major differences between universities, and not all will have a negative attitude to economic development. In regions where universities have a large local student intake there is likely to be a greater emphasis on courses which are related to local employment opportunities, and this will encourage links to form between the university and local companies. In places where there is a single or a few large local companies with particular training or research requirements, the incentive for close cooperation between universities and industry will be significant, and should enable economic development organisations to find a place with programmes to get the most out of such cooperation.

However, the general point remains that involving universities in economic development strategies is often harder than many regional stakeholders expect. This is especially true now in hard economic times when university finances are being squeezed. Regional stakeholders will need to find ways of helping universities to access finance for activity and research which are relevant to a regional economic development strategy, to lever in participation from other sectors which might be attractive to universities and to show themselves as useful partners by helping universities achieve their objectives when this is both relevant and possible.

Regional policy makers need to know their universities well and to be realistic about what can be achieved. This could save much wasted effort spent on mutual expressions of goodwill which lead nowhere.


Mr David Walburn

After a career in business David Walburn joined Greater London Enterprise in 1986 where he was responsible for venture capital and other small business support, before becoming Chief Executive of the organisation. He was the Chair of the London Business Angels Network and played a key role in the setting up of the European Business Angels Network. He has worked with the UK government and the European Commission on developing public policy initiatives to improve the financing of small and medium-sized enterprises. He was the Chair of Capital Enterprise, the umbrella body for organisations supporting micro business development in London, until 2012.

For the last ten years he has been a Visiting Professor at London South Bank University where he headed the Local Economy Policy Unit and was the managing editor of the journal Local Economy.

He has served as President of EURADA, and been a member of a number of advisory bodies of the European Commission.  He has been an active member of the International Economic Development Council in Washington DC and has a wide range of international contacts with economic development organisations.

He continues to write and lecture on small business finance and regional economic development.