After the launch of the Europe 2020 strategy and the EU Growth Agenda, Europe has taken the path to create a more connected relationship between society, government, business and higher education institutions (HEIs) in order to increase employment, productivity and social cohesion. Within this policy context, successful engagement of HEIs in synergetic relationships with these actors are deemed essential. HEIs as key regional actors possess the capacities to support businesses with knowledge and human resources, create new businesses via start-ups and spin-offs, and foster innovation via industry R&D cooperation (Kesting et al. 2017; Galan-Muros & Davey 2017; Stam & Spigel 2017).

However, despite the strong policy support, cooperation among the key actors in Europe is still in the early stages of development, and their interaction remains insufficient (Davey et al. 2011; Davey et al., 2018). According to the reports innovation performance has increased for the EU but not for all Member States, a finding supported by the Regional Innovation Scoreboard (RIS) 2017 as well, that has categorised four innovation performance groups, as regional Innovation Leaders (53 regions), regional Strong Innovators (60 regions), regional Moderate Innovators (85 regions), and regional Modest Innovators. In that, the recent reports by EU Smart Specialisation Platform and JRC particularly emphasize the need for “boundary spanners” in the innovation ecosystem, individuals who have deep understanding of both business and academia. This capacity is increasingly deemed crucial among the university staff in the entrepreneurial discovery and smart specialisation processes of the HEIs, to support transfer and exchange of knowledge. As discussed in the report by Smart Specialisation Platform, the nature of the barriers that hinder regional engagement include “lack of ‘boundary spanning skills in the university” and “lack of leadership to drive change”.

Given the fact that business engagement efforts of universities most times remain as paper strategies, not being able to translate those into meaningful action, the need for a systematic and comprehensive skills training becomes even more crucial. To elaborate,
• while there is extensive amount of research and reports available on the barriers to the third mission activities of European universities, there is very little emphasis on the internal capacity development dimension, including the research on the required set of skills for HE faculty and leadership;
• despite the strategic and structural investments of the universities to enable systematic development of industry relationships, the research shows collaboration in the areas of valorisation (academic and student entrepreneurship, commercialisation of research) and management (shared resources, joint governance) is particularly low, which calls for a holistic movement to facilitate cooperation in these areas (Davey et al., 2018).

The project thus aims to close this gap between the policy and practice, by (i) identifying the qualities, and knowledge & skills set that describes HEI staff, faculty, and leadership as boundary spanners, (ii) designing and pilot testing an experiential learning programme on the concept in collaboration with partner business representative organisations, (iii) extending the reach of the programme to staff from the businesses, and (iv) generating and disseminating replicable tools for HEIs and SMEs across Europe. This will be achieved with the experience and collaboration of a diverse group of 10 partners, made up of 4 HEIs, 3 SMEs, a chamber of commerce, a regional development agency, and a European wide network from 8 European countries.

Institutional capacity is one of the very first requirements towards establishing committed relationships with the regional stakeholders. In that respect, HEIs should assess their capacity in providing quality engagement services as much as assessing capacity in teaching, research, and innovation to best benefit the society.

The project will aim to address and connect Small and Medium Size Enterprises (SMEs) over other larger business partners, as SMEs constitute 99% of European business arena, and demonstrate the largest growth potential being the motors of European economy. However, SMEs lack the capacity on the SME side, lack of awareness of the potential to collaborate, lack of resources to undertake structured collaborative activities with universities. Additionally, SMEs have a certain advantage of having regional focus and being located in close proximity to the universities. In this proposal, we utilise the term “businesses” that mostly refers to SMEs.