European clusters are called to move away from being “clusters-as-usual” to becoming “clusters of change”

Submitted by Alina Danieles… on 27 August 2018

An interview with Bianca Dragomir, cluster manager of AVAESEN and European Cluster Manager of the Year 2016-2018.

ECCP: Bianca, you are the cluster manager of AVAESEN and also elected as the European Cluster Manager of the Year 2016-2018. I remember how you succeeded to convince a crowded audience of several hundred people that AVAESEN reinvented the cluster concept. What do you mean by that?

B.D.: In 2013 when I started as a cluster manager at AVAESEN, the cluster was literally at crossroads in the middle of an existential crisis - the global financial crisis, with a sudden shift in Spanish renewable energy politics and the regional government having abruptly stopped funding to clusters. As a result, AVAESEN and its members were struggling to survive.

These challenges created a sharp context for me to reinvent our cluster concept, by developing a more resilient cluster business model and a radically new cluster identity.

  • The first step was turning the AVAESEN cluster organisation into a real business generator for its members in order to keep the sector afloat in the domestic market and open up international markets. We shifted from a public-private subsidy-oriented cluster to a financially self-sustaining service provider.
  • The second step was placing entrepreneurship at the DNA of the cluster. To rebuild an innovation-driven cleantech sector, AVAESEN launched the first cleantech accelerator in Spain and since then has been leading partner of ClimateLaunchpad, the world’s largest green business idea competition, now at its fifth edition.
  • The third step was branching out into other sectors. We diversified the portfolio of the energy cluster members by tapping into other cleantech domains like water, ICT or industrial processes, working not only with different industries like the automotive, plastic or agrofood, but also with city councils, tech centers and private funders.
  • The fourth step was unlocking the clean energy domestic market in which energy self-consumption was penalized, by working closely with the Regional Government and with other local and national clusters.

So, AVAESEN started as a mere network of cleantech SMEs in dire straits and it became a true innovation ecosystem encompassing not only businesses, but also academia, research, government, investors, entrepreneurs and the civil society. It started as the voice of the sector and it turned into both the voice and the hands of it. It started as an inward-looking local organization and it became an open, outward-facing, multi-collaborative, cross-sectorial, entrepreneurship-driven, innovation hotspot where big, small, public and private stakeholders connect and where breakthrough innovation happens.

My cluster seems to be a standing proof of frugal innovation applied to and by a cluster organisation which created an entire ecosystem of mutual success for a plurality of stakeholders, within and beyond its physical, sectorial or membership boundaries.

All clusters should dare to deliberately challenge and reshape their own cluster formula to generate more impact, defrost’ themselves from the subsidy need and multiply the impact they are so capable of. In this way, clusters are powerful beyond measure.

ECCP: It’s been a long and tough - but also rewarding and successful -  journey! Are there any achievements/developments that make you particularly proud?

B.D.: Two years ago we launched the Smart Cities Think Tank - a cluster within a cluster. This is composed by a selection of AVAESEN energy members, but also other water and waste management, ICT, transport companies, as well as other associations, city councils, universities, private investors, business angels and banks, regional governments and citizens to co-create the cities of the future. Once again, this was initiated without public funding, but proactively acting on a real “pain” in the market, with an open, inclusive approach. We orchestrate demand and offer, adding research and investment as key ingredients to make change happen. Several projects related to energy self-consumption, smart city public procurement, open data platforms and a smart city living lab are currently being implemented. I am excited to see how this is creating a whole new culture of collaboration in the sector, with competitor companies co-creating solutions for municipalities, or to see how municipalities ranging from 500 to 2M inhabitants now actively join our efforts.

Last year, the Spanish Government opened a 8.000 MW renewable tender for the first time in many years. This stimuli opened a new era for renewables in Spain. There is an increased citizen’s demand for cleantech, the cost of technology has dropped significantly and our work in the past years has shifted the debate from a market push to a market pull approach. Our sector is now more mature, focused on the actual energy transition. There is a collectively owned drive towards cleantech and a systemic change is happening.

In the Valencian Region, with an investment potential of 3bn Euro and 1500 green jobs in the next years, our cluster is keen to harvest, now with the full commitment and speed of the entire ecosystem: our regional government, investors, banks, entrepreneurs, corporates, consumers and cities. We’ve managed to keep the sector afloat so far, to bring the competitiveness back on track, we incorporated innovation and created a new sense of purpose, trust and collaboration. Now the sector is best equipped to make the most of this momentum and lead the energy transition with focus and at much higher speed.

ECCP: In your recent interview with Business Planet (Euronews) – that we share here with our readers – you speak about the role your cluster plays in supporting startups to access markets (both domestic and international ones). How do you do that?

B.D.: It all started with the Tailored Action Plans for our SME members, designed on a ‘no cure, no pay’ basis. Through these, AVAESEN actively supported its members in their internationalization efforts and managed to raise the internationalization rate of the sector from 20% to 80% in the following 4 years.

We apply the same tailored formula to many of the cluster’s activities and accelerating start-ups to market is not exception from this. We literally sit down with each and every of the start-ups, we nail their business/research needs, we agree on an action plan, and then we get the job done.This is a fast process that happens in one, maximum two meetings. We then bring in mentors, coaches and other experts, potential clients within or outside of our sector, and funders if / where appropriate.

This is a simple but magical formula. It allows the cluster manager to have a sharp and actual view on the sector; it also enables to ‘cluster’ needs, trends, opportunities and to match them; it highly motivates current members, brings in new ones and attracts a myriad of useful contacts within and outside of the sector. This is a strategic tool for the members but an even more strategic one for the growth of the cluster itself.

To me this is a constant source of inspiration. It allows me to co-create and re-create my sector from within. Not so much from the market, but from the specific need, as a sort of reverse-engineering.

ECCP: Where do you see European clusters in 3 (or 5) years time?

B.D.: Some argue that the future is being invented outside of Europe, because Europe produces three times less patent applications than Japan, the biggest 10 companies in the world are from outside of Europe, or because European venture capitalists investing in high-growth tech startups are only a fifth of the ones in the US... Many of the European clusters have already turned places and networks into bold innovation hotspots. But, if we want to strengthen Europe’s engine of growth, we certainly need to interconnect those ecosystems and to do it in a fashion that triggers decarbonisation, resilience and re-industrialisation. That is why our innovation ecosystems, being integrated in or by clusters, need to act at the speed and scale that Europe needs.

In my view, this starts with re-thinking your own cluster ‘self’: where we deliberately choose to leverage impact, how we can be innovative in boosting our ecosystems, how can these inter-connect so that others can grow, what is your own cluster sense of purpose and authenticity…

I have been co-creating on the why and then on the concrete how to build and run innovation clusters with several European clusters from the Baltics, Germany, UK, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, in the past years. I have no doubt that European clusters are finding their authentic voice, designing novel models for the future. We just need to do it faster to get Europe on track. Trough a new project, Connected Clusters, funded by EIT Climate-KIC, AVAESEN together with the cities of Birmingham, London, Frankfurt seeks to provide inspiration on novel ingredients to boost climate innovation clusters around cities Europe-wide. I look forward to sharing its outcomes with the cluster community soon.

I trust that in the next years the European clusters will ‘catch these new winds in their sails’, by moving beyond traditional models, towards fresh, bold, dynamic and truly innovative ecosystems where renewal is a continuous process and by building ecosystems around products and services, where even past competitors become vital collaborators. And most importantly, they will rely on their authenticity by playing a critical role in advancing Sustainable Development Goals, no matter their industrial sector. I am working to make this happen in the context of the European High-level Industrial Roundtable ‘Industry 2030’, chaired by Vice-President of the European Commission Katainen and Commissioner Bieńkowska.

ECCP: Each of your speeches addressing various audiences, including to high-profile policy makers, has an inspirational touch.  A few – inspirational – words for the ECCP cluster community?

B.D.: As Parag Khanna says in his book,“Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization”: ‘It’s a world in which nobody wants to be a colony, everybody wants to be a hub’. Indeed, clusters – often called hubs, networks or innovation ecosystems – encapsulate higher growth potential, SMEs are more innovative, register more patents and create more jobs than they do alone.

In the next European Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2021-2027, there are signs of strategic opportunities for clusters, with novel instruments such as European Innovation Ecosystems and Innovation Missions. Europe is getting prepared to take the global lead in generating fully-fledged diverse, vibrant, unique and open innovation ecosystems based on our continent’s diversity and values. And share these models with the world.

But Europe can only win the global race if its innovation ecosystems truly punch above their weight, if we,clusters, create virtuous circles that generously leverage growth and innovation of a plurality of stakeholders, in which everybody becomes proud of being part of the change and feeds inspiration to the other.

Clusters are huge impact multipliers. A cluster does not only create the place and space where we experiment and test our ways into the future, but also is the ideal setting to scale up innovation and export our impact to the world. We need to be ambitious and bold to do this even more effectively. It’s high time to become fully aware that we are powerful beyond measure and take the lead of innovation missions larger than ourselves – that can only be done together -, orchestrating the change.

It’s time to move away from “the clusters-as-usual” to “the clusters-of-change”.

ECCP: Thank you very much Bianca Dragomir and we look forward hearing more from your achievements – both for AVAESEN and for the European clusters.

B.D.: Thank you as well for the opportunity to share my ideas with the international cluster community.

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