A Zero Zlotys Cluster
The Pomeranian ICT Cluster has achieved the impossible: practically short of money and within just a few months, it has become one of the most dynamically developing clusters in Poland. Marita Koszarek, owner of BSR Expertise and a strategic adviser to the Pomeranian ICT Cluster tells Krzysztof Garski about the challenges related to developing the cluster, its ambitious plans and the co-operation between business and science.
KG: The Pomeranian local self-government runs a program of key clusters, of which the Pomeranian ICT Cluster is a part. What are the practical implications of the programme for you?
MK: The competition triggered mobilization, both in our cluster and in other Pomeranian clusters. It made us start thinking about the cluster in terms of its shape, strategy and structure. Each competition is usually connected with strict deadlines you have to stick to, and there is not a better encouragement for work than a strict deadline. Members of a key cluster can also count on additional points in the evaluation of applications for grants from the Regional Operational Program, provided that their projects comply with the strategy of the cluster. Unfortunately, we were unable to take that opportunity, as the ROP funds have nearly been exhausted.
Pomerania’s commitment to the development of clusters is exceptional compared with the rest of the country, although entrepreneurs claim that the local self-government could act with a greater degree of involvement in this respect. An important initiative was the creation, in the province Marshall’s office, of a contact point for dealing with clusters. Its employees help us organize different events, offer their knowledge and provide necessary information. The key clusters programme has had a significant promotional effect for us – we have been mentioned in the media and the information about the program has reached even our foreign partners. We are a young cluster (registered at the end of 2009), so the programme has facilitated the development of our international co-operation. The co-operation between the cluster members started much earlier, though, within the framework of the WiComm Centre for Perfection, which initiated a few programmes focused on the exchange of information between scientists and several companies.
KG: The low level of mutual trust among entrepreneurs and scientists is one of the biggest obstacles in the development of clusters in Poland. Tell us about the beginnings of building the co-operation between the two groups in the Pomeranian ICT Cluster.”
MK: Just like in the case of other clusters, the beginnings were not easy. But there were things that made the development of the co-operation easier, e.g. the participation of the cluster companies in research projects within the framework of WiComm Centre for Perfection or the project involving internships for scientists in companies operating in the region, which has resulted in the creation of a positive approach of both groups to working within the cluster. Moreover, the entrepreneurs have discovered that the scientists from our colleges and universities display a high level of competence and have a proven record of patents, implementations, as well as experience gained worldwide. They are also open to the business environment, which one of the managers has commented on by saying that the scientists from the Gdańsk Univeristy of Technology are the few who answer phone calls after 4 pm.
A difficulty in the development of the relationship between science and business were certain mental barriers. They were eventually overcome in the course of a series of workshops, during which we simulated the development of the situation in the cluster over a period of one or two years. This allowed us to get to know and understand potential threats. There is still a lot to be done, particularly with regard to projects that also companies from outside the cluster are engaged in. They often have unfounded doubts as to whether the participation of a college or university in a project may contribute an added value to it.
We try to make sure that the roles of entrepreneurs and the Gdańsk University of Technology, which has inspired the creation of the cluster, are balanced. To this effect, we have created the Cluster Council, described as an example of a good practice in the “Benchamarking of Clusters in Poland” report. The council is composed of eight members - six entrepreneurs and two scientists. The council is represented by both, small and big companies, in order to ensure that the interests of each group are appropriately represented. Also when we create task groups, they are led by representatives of business. We try to ensure that all activities are of pro-business nature.
KG: Tell us about the big changes that are expected to take place in the cluster in January.
MK: The cluster expects a better access to financing in 2011, so we are now looking for a full-time animator, who will be expected take some duties off the council’s shoulders, as their members cannot, for obvious reasons, devote their time entirely to the development of the cluster. They are not always able to take a day off to e.g. participate in a conference devoted to the development of clusters. Tasks like that will be delegated to the animator. Financial support will help us build a better awareness of the cluster’s brand and develop contacts with partners worldwide.
KG: How has the cluster been financed so far?
MK: We operate in much more difficult conditions than e.g. clusters in Hungary or Latvia, which may count on a much greater support from the state. For more than a year now, we have been operating practically without any financial support. One can even go so far as to say that the cost of creation of our cluster was zero zlotys. The companies associated in the cluster pay monthly premiums, but these are put aside to be used as their contribution in joint projects financed from EU grants. Members of the council and the representatives of the University do not receive any consideration for their work for the cluster. This year has been a real school of survival - we have carried out extensive actions practically without any money, but nevertheless we have achieved a great deal. Our activities were evaluated during a recent meeting of the cluster members - our record of achievements is quite impressive: 90 different activities, including a conference for over 100 participants.
It is worth mentioning that the authors of “Benchmarking of Clusters in Poland” have found our cluster to be the best ICT Cluster In Poland. This opinion is very important to us, as it shows that our efforts make sense and bring good effects despite many difficulties.
MK: Projects of this kind have been carried out for quite some time now. The results of research conducted at WiComm Center for Perfection have allowed scientists to set up a few businesses. An interesting project, for example, is one related to the development of led lamps used in street lighting constituting a part of an intelligent network capable of determining when and for how long a lamp should be turned on. Such lamps will soon be installed on the premises of the Gdańsk University of Technology, giving its inventors an opportunity to present them to potential clients. The ultimate goal is to introduce this product not only on the Polish market, but also abroad.
Member companies of the cluster are also involved in a few projects currently going through a research and pre-implementation stage. The successful and smooth co-operation is owed to the fact that we have devoted a lot of time to prepare the legal framework for such co-operation, that is, central license agreements protecting the interest of both, the companies and the University. Advance preparation of a mechanism related to the protection of intellectual property makes future co-operation in the area of commercialization of knowledge significantly easier. For example, there are precise rules regulating the circulation of documents, which limits the decision-making paralysis. It took us a few years to create these standards, but thanks to them our companies can now use these solutions as they go. The knowledge transfer process has become faster, simpler, more predictable and simply cheaper. Another issue is to get scientists used to a regular co-operation with business. They are more and more often taking on research whose results may prove useful for a given company and thus become known to the market.
Another thing is that the organizational system of the Polish science does not support the involvement of scientists in commercial activity. Implementation by a company of a solution designed by a technical university does not necessarily translate into an increased budget of a university department employing innovative scientists being authors of such a solution, unlike in the case of a larger number of publications in scientific press. Therefore, heads of university departments are not always eager to accept the involvement of their employees in business projects. This always boils down to a difficult compromise between scientific and implementation work, and we are unable to change this on our own, without lobbying on the national level.