What do the Digital Innovation Hubs offer to European SMEs?
The Digital Innovation Hubs will ensure that every company, large or small, high-tech or not, can grasp the digital opportunities and access the knowledge and testing facilities which it needs.
The European Commission under the responsibility of the Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Guenther Oettinger, launched on 19 April 2016 a strategy on digitising the European industry. The strategy aims at supporting European industry in its digital transformation by articulating the so-called ‘Digital Innovation Hubs’.
The Digital Innovation Hubs [DIH] are ecosystems fostering “many-to-many” connections between competence centers, industry users and suppliers, technology experts and investors and facilitating access to EU-wide markets.
The SMEs are the ‘reason of being’ of the Digital Innovation Hubs. The DIHs are conceived to ensure that every SMEs in Europe have access to key ICT competences, which are going to be the key for the growth in the emerging markets.
SMEs, of a wide variety of sizes, have the advantages of being largely owner-managed with quick decision making processes, having short communication lines, flexibility and a drive for workable solutions. On the other hand, they have less money to invest and limited research and development capability. They have varied starting positions ranging from high-tech spin-offs to traditional craft businesses. SMEs may be negatively affected by Industry 4.0 and change overs to digital production in networked factories (currently less than 2% of SMEs use advanced digital technologies to innovate in products or processes). Therefore, there is a risk that SMEs could miss business opportunities if they are not able to participate in new technological solutions.
The DIHs will ensure that every company, large or small, high-tech or not, can grasp the digital opportunities and access the knowledge and testing facilities which it needs.
The initiative to establish one DIH in each European Region (‘Boosting digital innovations in all sectors: DIHs across Europe’, Digitising European Industry Strategy) will support SMEs on a regional basis, establishing regional networks as well as cross-linking between all DIHs. Existing research centres and laboratories can be adapted to the needs of SMEs, and companies will be matched with appropriate competent partners.
The aim is to allow the greatest possible number of SMEs to take advantage of the technology platforms and gain access to methods, tools, software and prototype solutions.
Apart from this technological support, the hub will also supply innovation services such as advice on potential sources of financing for upscaling the experiment to real production and roll out. It can also support industry in training its staff and improve their digital skills, or in their efforts to enter new markets.
So a Digital Innovation Hub provides both technological support (through a competence center) as well as more general innovation support.
Many successful digital innovation hubs initiatives already exist in Europe, such as:
- the micro-tech cluster in southern Germany where institutes such as Fraunhofer and university labs play an essential role
- the Grenoble digital innovation eco-system around French institutes like CEA or INRIA.
- TNO in Netherlands which is a major player in a growing international network comprised of leading scientific institutes, companies with ambitious development profiles, universities and other partners
- CATAPULT in UK which aims to create a network of new centres across the nation to accelerate the growth of the UK’s Digital Economy
- iMinds, the Flanders’ digital research & entrepreneurship hub, joins forces with industry and SMEs in cooperative projects to turn digital know-how into future-proof products and services
- The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) works in partnership with industry, academia and R&D institutions, to develop and prove innovative manufacturing processes and technologies in an agile, low risk environment. The MTC is a very good example of expanding the networks of innovation hubs to regions where there is not such support for companies.
There are also several initiatives of the EC to shape the pan-European network of DIHs with the focus on helping SMEs to master their digital transformation:
- Innovation for Manufacturing SMEs (I4MS),
- Smart Anything Everywhere (SAE),
- Open Data Incubator Europe (ODINE),
- European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC),
- European Coordination Hub for Open Robotics Development (ECHORD++),
- Access Center for Photonics Innovation Solutions and Technology Support (ACTPHAST),
- Supercomputing Exercise for SMEs (SESAME NET),
Finally, the EU is launching specific actions to support the establishment of new DIH in regions where they still do not have these facilities:
- The “I4MS Mentoring and Sponsorship programme” has dedicated 1,2 million euro to support the definition of feasibility studies of 29 Regional Digital Innovation Hubs all along Europe.
- The EC has launched a tender to set up new DIHs in Eastern Europe. 2 Million Euro project “Smart factories in new EU Member States” will be dedicated to the establishment of at least 30 new Regional DIHs in at least 8 different new EU member states
The final objective is that a network of all these DIHs will be established, drawing up a catalogue of initiatives EU wide, linking those initiatives, sharing best practice and promoting cross-border projects to support SMEs digitalization.