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Innovation in the sensor technology industry: A policy perspective

Management Summary:
In 2003 the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs published a document in which an analysis of the Dutch innovative performance was presented. It showed that The Netherlands are “losing momentum” and the present international competitive position is not as strong as it used to be. An important issue concerns the innovation paradox, which involves the problematic translation of results in fundamental research to industrial applications and economic gains. One industry in which such problems appear to be active is the sensor technology industry. The Netherlands hold a very strong position in fundamental sensor technology research. However, this strong position in fundamental research is not obviously translated to a strong internationally competitive sensor industry.

This thesis analyses the Dutch sensor technology field using a systems of innovation approach. This approach analyses the various actors that are involved in sensor technology and the relationships that exist between them. The most important actors involve the sensor technology firms, technical universities, research institutes (such as TNO), and various bridging and networking initiatives. The goal of this analysis is to determine how public policy can contribute to the innovative capacity of the sensor technology industry in the Netherlands.

There is an apparent concentration of firms and research institutes in the province of South Holland. Focused policy efforts on a strong region could be very useful. Therefore, a case study is performed in the province of South Holland in order to determine whether the actors in this geographical area can be regarded as a cluster of innovative firms and institutions. Cluster policy could prove to be effective in order to stimulate the innovative capacity of firms in this region. The data collection concerns questionnaires and interviews, as well as existing publications on sensor technology in the Netherlands. The questionnaires have been sent to sensor technology firms in the Netherlands and semi-structured interviews have been performed with entrepreneurs in South Holland. Furthermore, interviews have been held with representatives of scientific institutions as well as Dutch policy makers and executers.

The sensor technology industry in the Netherlands is rather young and of limited size. There is a strong geographical concentration of firms in the province of South Holland, and in particular around the city of Delft. This concentration is probably related to the strong representation of sensor technology research in the province. The TUDelft, and more specifically its research institute DIMES, belongs to the top sensor technology research institutes in the world. The largest technological contract research institute in the Netherlands, TNO, is also strongly represented in the province. The case study of South Holland has resulted in some interesting findings. In contradiction to some expectations and assumptions of this thesis, it is not clear that the sensor technology firms and knowledge institutions in South Holland can be regarded as a cluster of innovation. The firms and institutions are not strongly interdependent and are often operating individually. There is not much co-operation in joint innovation trajectories aimed at the creation of turnover and profits. Furthermore, most of the important networks in which the sensor technology firms in South Holland are active are not localised. They are active at a national or international level. The main strengths of the Dutch sensor technology system include the high quality of fundamental sensor technology research, the strong international competitive position of some Dutch firms, and the growth potential of the industry at large. The main weaknesses are the problematic transfer of knowledge from universities to industrial applications, the supply of labour, the access to capital, and the absence of strong home market demand. Current policy measures such as the Innovation Platform and the various subsidy measures have a stimulating effect on innovation in general. Some specific (regional) measures such as the Kennisalliantie are directly targeted on the sensor technology system. However, the results of this research pinpoint some gaps in current policy measures. The main recommendations to policy makers concern the mentioned weaknesses of the system as well as recommendations on the functioning of (regional) networking initiatives and regional policy.

The collection of innovation and R&D subsidies in the Netherlands appears to be quite strong. The only apparent area in which subsidy measures are not yet well developed is the area of risk bearing capital. Firms are constantly in search of this type of capital and the Dutch government might be able to assist them to a larger extent than it does presently. The SBIR measure that the US government has installed might offer interesting opportunities for firms, governments and venture capitalists. It is recommended that more elaborate research on this topic is performed. The problematic transfer of knowledge between (fundamental) research institutes and industry is at the core of the innovation paradox. A solution to this issue is not easy and it involves many policy areas. Present measures such as the Technopartner programme, the Innovation Vouchers measure and the high-tech internships of Syntens affect certain elements of the innovation paradox. A measure similar to the American SBIR measure could prove to be successful in fighting the innovation paradox. Further research into the role of technical universities’ policies on Intellectual Property and university spin-offs could result in improvement of these policies. Most of the firms that have participated in this research see the future of the Dutch highly educated technical labour pool as a problem for the continuity of their business. A similar problem is apparent at universities, where a majority of PhD students is foreign. The Dutch government is well aware of this problem and is investing in the improvement of this situation (e.g. by granting financial incentives for PhD students). Within the constraints of this research it has not been possible to take a closer look to this issue and it is recommended that an organisation such as the Innovation Platform continues to do research on this topic and devises practical solutions to the issue.

The presence of strong demand markets is important for the development of the sensor technology industry. The Netherlands does not have a significant position in a number of industries that are of importance for sensor technology applications. This includes industries such as the automotive industry and the aerospace industry. However, there are some industries in which the Netherlands hold a strong position and in which sensor technology plays an important role (transport and logistics, the process industry, the agro food industry, and horticulture). Policy efforts should focus on these industries in order for the Dutch sensor technology industry to develop a more distinctive character from their international competitors. Institutions such as FHI, STW and Syntens can develop business roadmaps for those industries in which a strong home market demand for sensor technology is present.

There are quite some organisations in the Netherlands that have or want to have an important mediating role in the sensor technology system. There should be a better co-ordination among these institutes in order for their efforts to provide the required results. Certain initiatives should shift their focus or they should merge with others. An institution such as STW could possibly fill a gap in the current system by putting more effort into SMEs. In some cases sensor initiatives seem to be too isolated from initiatives in adjacent technology fields. There should be more cooperation and co-ordination between sensor initiatives and, e.g., MST initiatives. Finally, networking and bridging initiatives should play a more active role as information brokers. By developing an online meeting point for the actors in the sensor technology system, these networking and bridging institutions can increase knowledge transfer and co-operation.

The final recommendation concerns regional policy and cluster policy. In the case of the sensor technology industry, regional policy can only be successful if it is co-ordinated on a national level. The sensor technology system in the Netherlands is geographically scattered over a number of regions, and these regions do not have the size or a sufficient distinctive character to be internationally competitive on a long term. Institutions such as the Kennisalliantie and Syntens should not develop isolated regional policy. They must co-ordinate their efforts with their national counterparts in order to be successful.

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