Developing university-business cooperation: Is more funding the answer?

In development circles, ‘the big push’, made famous by Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, advocates substantial investment through a “comprehensive package of massive aid transfers and widespread reforms that aim to tackle multiple socio-economic pathologies quickly and simultaneously” [1]. This method has generated many critics for its inability to achieve development goals (e.g. alleviate poverty), whilst simultaneously requiring large capital investments.

The European Union has made large investments of its own in economic and social development. Together the European Social Fund (ESF), European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Cohesion Fund support the European Cohesion Policy, with a budget of €358.1 billion available between 2014-2020, still the largest European funding program[2]. One should not underestimate the effects of these funding programs, however a greater level of strategic investments would further increase its impact.

The notion that throwing money at the problem will fix it, has been made time and again in attempts to develop knowledge economies. The recent attempts of the Commission to develop Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) through the European Institute of Technology (EIT) is one such example. With a budget of €300 million between 2008 and 2013 and a current budget of €2.38 billion for 2014-2020, it is yet unclear what the impact of these funds have been.[3]  The money invested in the KICs could have been leveraged for greater investments, however the funds seem to have replaced funds otherwise invested by business. Although recent changes in the structure and management of EIT offer promise, these examples support the argument that investing a large sum without a clear strategy can lose momentum and impact, whilst costing money.

It is not just the EIT that is trying to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship. Programs such as Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliances, Strategic Partnerships[4] or many of the Horizon2020 actions[5] are aimed at advancing the knowledge society. The amount of funding made available by the European Commission through the Knowledge Alliances and the EIT may be critical to their success. However, the development of the European innovation ecosystem also depends on other factors.

A  more strategic focus on the selected programmes can also yield positives dividends.

The first step would be to adjust the programmes so that they could attract industry to apply, dragging their academic partner with them, rather than the other way around. In this way, the driving force would be the business rather than the academics. To do so, it would require a drastic reduction in bureaucracy and paperwork, which anecdotally is chewing up one third of the budget dedicated to the project. This approach is driven by organisations, such as enterprise agencies, to make business aware of the research funding available to them, such is currently being done by the Newry and Mourne Co-operative and Enterprise Agency[6] in Northern Ireland.

A more comprehensive understanding of what contributes to successful university-business cooperation (UBC) is also required and needs to be recognised in the funded projects.

A review of the funding programmes would highlight the need for projects to build upon existing university-business relationships that have already achieved proven results. Greater non-financial rewards should also be sought within the alliances, with mutual benefit given a priority focus. Furthermore, universities involved need to exhibit that their senior-management is truly dedicated to collaborating with business, as an institutional commitment is shown to be a key success factor of UBC.

A continued focus on the regional innovation system paradigm and systems theory applied to clusters, could also yield more strategic approaches to alliances funded. Three forms of clusters were nominated by Carayannis and Campbell[7]: (i) ‘geographic, spatial-political clusters’, which are primarily of a geographical nature; (ii) ‘sectoral clusters’, which are aligned with industries or business sectors; and (iii) ‘knowledge clusters’ relates to a specific area of knowledge and have a geographic or sectoral nature. By recognising the way, in which good working collaborations are built, greater return on investment could be achieved. Regions could benefit from the knowledge at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission. Through their Smart Specialisation Platform they “provide professional advice to EU countries and regions for the design and implementation of their research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation (RIS3).”[8]

[1] Abuzeid, F., (2009), Foreign Aid and the “Big Push” Theory: Lessons from Sub-Saharan Africa Stanford Journal of International Relations, Fall 2009, found at:
[2] Europe’s Cohesion Policy 2014-2020:
[3] Special Report no 04/2016:
[4] Erasmus+ Funding Program:
[5] Horizon2020 Program:
[6] Innovation Alliances (2016):
[7] Carayannis, E.G. and Campbell, D.F.J., (2006) ‘“Mode 3”: meaning and implications from a knowledge systems perspective’. In Knowledge Creation, Diffusion, and Use in Innovation Networks and Knowledge Clusters (pp. 1–25) ‘Westport, CN: Praeger.
[8] Smart Specilisation Platform:



Meet the authors

Professor Todd Davey
Prof. Dr. Todd Davey is a passionate researcher, practitioner, speaker and recognised expert on the topics of Entrepreneurship and University-Business Cooperation (UBC) as well as being author of the book ‘Entrepreneurship at Universities’. Formerly a Senior Manager with Deloitte Australia’s Technology Commercialisation Group and Strategy & Business Development Manager for one of Australia’s fastest growing start-ups, Todd has ‘switched sides’ to work within academia. Having just completed his PhD on entrepreneurship at universities at the VU Amsterdam, Todd also divides his time between his roles as Director of Strategy with the University-Industry Innovation Network, worldwide network focussed on the topic of university-industry interaction, and Managing Director at the innovation spin-out apprimo.

Arno Meerman
Arno Meerman is the CEO at University Industry Innovation Network (UIIN) as well as being a Council Member of the Accreditation Council for Engaged and Entrepreneurial Universities (ACEEU) and Business Development Manager for the Science-to-Business Marketing Research Centre, one of Europe’s leading scientific institutes in the area of university-business cooperation. He is currently the Project Manager for the State of European University-Business Cooperation initiative being executed for the European Commission and has been the Conference Organiser for the UIIN conference series, which averages over 350 people per conference and is the largest in the topic of university-industry cooperation.