How do prevailing National and Regional Innovation Systems affect University Contribution, and transformation towards building an Entrepreneurial University? Insights from a study of the Life Sciences area in Stockholm and Vienna

Research & Innovation Consultant
winnovation consulting gmbh Vienna, Austria

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Senior Scientist Innovation Systems Department Austrian Institute of Technology Vienna, Austria
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Understanding how prevailing regional and national innovation systems affect university contribution and transformation towards becoming more entrepreneurial is paramount, given greater emphasis has been placed at governmental level to increase university contribution to innovation systems. Findings presented here are from a study exploring which actors, mechanisms, organisational barriers, and enablers, are present within the selected systems that ultimately affect university contribution, and how universities are transforming in response to interactions within the innovation system.


The European Commission has argued that while European research institutions are good at producing academic research outputs, they are not successful in transferring these outputs to the economy – the so called ‘European Paradox’ (European Commission, 2007). Recognition exists that policies for the knowledge triangle are insufficiently joined-up, an example being the
relatively minor role that the education and training dimension of higher education receives in policies for the European Research and Innovation Area (FarHorizon, 2010). There are various underlying structural problems concerning technology-transfer existing in Europe. A lack of coordination of policy instruments for research and innovation is causing problems within the enabling environment, which suggests that research must be carried out in order to measure the factors at play (Conti and Gaulé, 2009).

However, further research is required to explore the internal organisation dynamics and external innovation ecosystem (IKTIMED, 2013), given university technology-transfer is underutilised in many National Innovation Systems. A number of scholars have called for detailed studies which analyse the differences in strategic orientation, incentive arrangements, and support structures (TTO), in order to determine the entrepreneurial practices deployed in universities (eg. Debackere and Veugelers, 2005; Rothaermel et al, 2007). Van Looy et al (2011), for instance, identified a gap in the documentation and analysis of the impact of (national or regional) innovation system characteristics in which universities are embedded, as an important complementary research endeavour. They contend that consid-erable opportunities for growth in the European Research Area is possible, on the basis that future research confirms the crucial role of national innovation system characteristics on the entrepreneurial performance of universities. In addition, during the course of their study, they noted a number of strong differences between European countries on the level of the entrepreneurial performance of universities, signifying the importance of further analysing these anomalies transnationally. This is particularly interesting given Gunasekara (2006) highlighted the importance of understanding policy perspectives for university engagement at regional level, regarding the sustainable operation of universities. He suggests that there may well be heightened interest in how university engagement at a regional level can provide a basis for the sustainable operation of universities themselves. This suggests that there is a gap in knowledge regarding university transformation in relation to the regional system in which it functions.

The study presented here addresses this research gap by investigating how prevailing regional and national innovation systems affect university contribution, and transformation towards universities becoming more entrepreneurial. The focus lies at the interface between universities and the innovation system. This should highlight the impact changes at regional and national level within innovation systems has on university contribution and transformation, thus pinpointing successes and challenges within the system; and secondly, determine similarities and differences through comparatively analysing these findings at regional level. The main research question is: How do prevailing National and Regional Innovation Systems affect university contribution, and transformation towards building an Entrepreneurial University? In particular, we are interested in the actors, mechanisms, organisational barriers, and organisational enablers that are impacting the entrepreneurial transformation of universities.

Table 1
Analytical Framework


Conceptual Elements Identified Target Groups (Interviewees)
Government Funding Agency Industry
Organisational Barriers and Enablers
Strengthened Steering Core
Expanded Development Periphery
Stimulated Academic Heartland
Integrated Entrepreneurial Culture

Source: Own depiction


This qualitative study has been designed as a comparative case study, in order to explore two bounded systems (the regions of Vienna and Stockholm). Predominantly qualitative primary and secondary data has been utilised, since the study is heavily context based. Given the unique focal point of the study, elements from three concepts has been utilised to design the analytical framework and data analysis: as such, Lundvall’s (1992) and Cooke’s et al (1997) National and Regional Innovation Systems approach, Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff (2000) Triple Helix, and Clark’s (1998) Elements of Entrepreneurial University Transformation have been adopted. The research question has been framed by considering how the university fits within the National Innovation System focusing on the interface between university and the external innovation system. The actors, relations, and mechanisms have been considered based upon Triple Helix principles. Three main dimensions from Clark (1998) (Strengthened Steering Core; Diversified Funding Base; and Entrepreneurial Development Periphery) have been adopted specifically to design questions which probe university transformation in relation to prevailing innovation systems. The Analytical Framework is shown in Table 1.
Unique case sampling was the favoured method in order to select specific universities involved in the life sciences sector, to maintain a narrow focus. In this instance, four universities (BOKU University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna; The Medical University of Vienna; KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm; Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm) and eight innovation system actors have been selected from two regions identified as areas where the Life Science sector is of economic importance. In total seventeen interviews were conducted representing different actors within universities (ie. management, technology-transfer office, and researchers), and different actors from the broader innovation system. Secondary data sources were identified to gather information relating to the national and regional innovation system.


The results from the case studies in Vienna and Stockholm are presented next focusing on the role and contribution of actors, mechanisms, and organisational factors.


In the case of both countries, government (or its associated agencies in the Swedish case) appear to have a fundamental impact on how universities are transforming. This can be attributed to policy changes (in the Austrian case), whereby further autonomy has been granted to universities as a means to enable them to professionalise and secure diversified sources of funding from elsewhere in the innovation system. It can also be attributed to various short-, mid-, and long-term funding projects (in both country cases), whereby universities are being steered towards priority thematic areas, and to collaborate with other actors in the innovation system, given the rules and regulations of acquiring such funding. Nevertheless, the disciplinary focus and traditional orientation of each university case reflected its level of entrepreneurial activities and transformation.

Both BOKU and KTH Royal Institute of Technology have had close links with industry for several decades, and this reflected in the structural and organisational transformation that has taken place over time, and the generally positive attitudes of academics towards contributing to the innovation system. Therefore, although bridging organisations are vital to connect actors, and industry are incredibly important in collaborating with universities, it seems government plays a pivotal role in creating the appropriate entrepreneurial innovation environment whereby universities have enough autonomy and resources to contribute efficiently, whilst also maintaining their core missions.


In particular, the University Act 2002 and uni:invent programme have played pivotal roles in the Austrian system for the entrepreneurial transformation of universities. Although Swedish universities feel restricted in their autonomy, they have also benefited from targeted funding for the development of Innovation Offices. This particular infrastructural development has been positive for bridging university commercialisation activities within the innovation system. Competence Centres have been highlighted in both cases as being pivotal, considering the unique innovation environment and platform it provides. Its long-term orientation enables trust building, which has been noted as a fundamental element in university collaboration processes. In addition, government funding programmes in both country cases has been noted as being particularly important in order to increase funding allocations to universities. Nevertheless, government needs to provide more risk capital to bridge the gap created by the low number of venture capitalists, given current institutional frameworks and prevailing cultures are still in their infancy in this regard in both country cases.

Overall, the development of incubators, clusters, and bridging organisations seems strong in Sweden, although Austria is making good progress, with various Centres of Excellence and bridging organisations such as LISA Vienna easing collaboration processes. From the university perspective, having support from university management, and inclusion of entrepreneurial activities within strategy documents and development plans of a university, seems to promote successful transformation, given entrepreneurialism permeates throughout the system as a result. Other important mechanisms such as IP policies and the Teacher’s Exemption have highlighted that elements from these mechanisms could potentially be adopted into systems to ensure transparent collaboration, and also incentivise academics to collaborate.

Organisational Barriers:

A number of barriers were highlighted which were common to both innovation systems under analysis. A lack of funding was the main barrier, highlighting that targeted funding could reduce current bottlenecks in the system. Areas requiring attention include the need for higher levels of basic university funding from government, in order for universities to be able to match fund industry projects and maintain their independence in such collaborations. Higher allocations of risk capital is also missing within the system, requiring government to bridge the current ‘Valley of Death’. In addition, further funding is required to improve and increase infrastructure within universities, and enable the recruitment of further human resources for TTOs, given the current situation is limiting its collaboration volume potential, thus capping its income potential. This reflects Koryakina, Teixeira, and Sarrico (2012) who noted that there is a need for appropriate infrastructure to support emerging third mission activities. From a structural and organisational perspective, external innovation actors noted difficulties relating to the variety of university structures present, thus requiring varying individual approaches. The traditional orientation and structure of universities varies greatly, which slows the process of collaboration due to bureaucracy, difficulties in identifying the right people to contact, and a lack of visibility regarding how business negotiations should take place with universities.

Funding through various mechanisms has seen the implementation of TTOs which has enhanced the interface between universities and the innovation system. However, more needs to be done to enhance the business models of universities in order to further professionalise university operations, particularly with regard to management of collaborations, so that universities are able to operate more entrepreneurially, and thus enhance and extend the third mission activities in which they are involved. This includes the need for further infrastructure and human resources, which have the potential to increase commercialisation activities. In addition, bottlenecks exist regarding knowledge transfer internally within universities, and what is made available externally to innovation actors. However, it seems tensions exist within universities between operating a professional business model and performing the core traditional functions of the university, which stems from limitations on time, funding, and in some cases, academic cultures present within universities, and their subsequent resulting engagement in commercialisation activities. For successful implementation of university transformation, it seems embedding entrepreneurialism within the mission and strategy of the university is imperative.

In addition, strong leadership, and development of trust within the system is needed to get academics on board. Pressures to service the core missions of the university, as well as third mission activities, is facing major limitations due to available time and funding. Care must be taken to overcome this hurdle, given conflict between academics and administrators within universities can inhibit transformation and development (Martinelli, Meyer, and von Tunzelmann, 2008). Both country case representatives noted that the academic emphasis on producing publications, rather than number of commercialisations, has a great impact on output, reflecting similar tensions found by Martinelli, Meyer, and von Tunzelmann (2008). This can be attributed to the traditional tenure system in place, which impacts the mobility of researchers between industry and academia, particularly later in their careers. Therefore, this requires attention at system level, in order to create balance and overcome issues between public and private knowledge.

Organisational Enablers:

A number of enablers were recognised in both country cases, with Competence Centres identified as an excellent long-term initiative, providing a much needed platform where trust building could take place. In addition, expanding the development periphery of universities through the addition of TTOs has also been hailed as a successful development for easing the collaboration and contribution processes of universities within the innovation system. This is likely due to the professionalisation of the system, and the increased visibility of this interface, whereby external actors can interact and collaborate more easily. However, it should be noted that the presence of the TTO alone is not enough, and requires a commitment from leadership, and appropriate processes, functions, and IP policies in order for it to be successful. Elements of the Teacher’s Exemption, a highly debated issue within the study, could potentially yield good results if adopted carefully within a university system. Pressures on academics and their general orientation towards the core missions of teaching and research tend to reduce the efforts directed towards commercialisation.
It appears that all actors play a role in easing university contribution to the innovation system, however, government plays an elevated role due to developments in national and EU strategy documents, their allocation of funding through various mechanisms, and changes made to legislation (eg. the University Act 2002 in Austria). Targeted funding towards the development of TTOs in both cases has enabled universities to professionalise their organisation and functions in response to the innovation system. The most successful transformation cases included those where entrepreneurial activities were embedded within the mission and the strategy of the university, and considered as day-to-day activities. Therefore, this incorporates the same importance placed on the other core missions of the university, echoing the University of Waterloo’s approach towards promoting entrepreneurialism throughout its vision and mission statements, as a means to serve as an institutional enabler of entrepreneurial culture within their institution (Bramwell and Wolfe, 2008).

Nevertheless, the traditional orientation of the university plays a strong bearing on how well it can interact and contribute to the innovation system, with the Life Sciences area considered a strength in this respect. It was noted that the formation of broader schools within universities went some way towards creating conducive environments for collaborative activity. Nevertheless, the creation of unstructured platforms through internal clustering seemed to be a successful addition in the aim towards creating cross-disciplinary environments – an area many respondents felt was underdeveloped and underutilised. However, due to the lack of funding available within the system, universities have to take strategic decisions regarding which IP is pursued and, as such, identification of niche markets has been a pivotal strategy to deal with lack of funding, but place a focus on key strengths of the universities.

Comparative Findings

From a comparative perspective, the life sciences are a very important sector economically in both the Stockholm and Vienna regions. Governmental strategies in both regions pay attention to this area; however, Sweden has taken a stronger long-term strategic approach to development through directing large public investment towards the sector and its infrastructure. Nevertheless, Austria is not far behind in its approaches, however strategizing and investment is more conservative in this case. The comparative analysis of the case universities highlights that all universities are becoming increasingly professionalised and entrepreneurial, although this is taking place at differing levels and time scales. The medical universities appear to be more traditional in culture and structure, particularly in the Swedish case. However, this is changing, as pockets of academic entrepreneurs are increasingly participating in collaborations and technology-transfer activities. Nevertheless, it was highly noticeable that both KTH Royal Institute of Technology and BOKU are much more entrepreneurial, and have a longer history of development in this respect. Additionally, a culture for entrepreneurial activities was strong in both institutions. This may be attributed to the fact that entrepreneurialism was given greater emphasis within the mission and strategy of these universities in comparison to the medical universities, with buy-in from top management clearly evident in the long-term planning for collaborations, particularly in the case of KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Overall, it appears similar barriers exist for universities in both regions, which suggests that these are national system level anomalies. Therefore, there is a need for structural easing, particularly regarding autonomy in the Swedish system. Additional funds are required, particularly in the Austrian system, in order to give universities more flexibility and power, and bridge current funding gaps.

Comparing national and regional innovation systems, the national system predominates in both country cases; however, some regional differences occur, particularly in Austria, where federal regions appear quite autonomous in their strategies and approaches. In this case, Austria has afforded more autonomy to its university system in comparison to Sweden, which has enabled universities to take more decisions, and professionalise accordingly. This particular move would be beneficial in the Swedish system to increase the scale at which universities can make decisions regarding infrastructure and the financing of technology-transfer activities. Interestingly, the governance structure in Sweden is quite different to that in Austria, with governmental agencies having greater power and autonomy to interpret strategies and distribute funding. Despite disconnections, fragmentation, and disjointed structural problems in each case country, the clarity and focus of innovation strategies appears stronger in Sweden. Nevertheless, both regions, and indeed countries, face similar issues, including the gap in funding known as the “Valley of Death”, which is ultimately causing a gap in innovations within the system. Weak links exist between academia and industry generally, despite some universities having elevated success in this area. It will be interesting to track the progress of the current large targeted financial investment in Sweden; especially given governments there have identified the importance of investing in infrastructure and research in a centralised way in order to get more out of capital expenditure in research and development.


Like a rubrics cube or complex drainage system, it can be difficult to find a blockage or create conducive alignment. This study has exposed a number of barriers and enablers at the junction of collaboration. After investigation, it appears that prevailing innovation systems and their overarching institutional frameworks affect the level of university contribution. This echoes and extends Hoareau, Ritzen, and Marconi’s (2012) finding that political systems may influence performance of their public policies. Interestingly, the regional dimension of innovation did not have as much impact as the overarching national dimension. This is due to the fact that many mechanisms and policies are rolled out at national level. Nevertheless, it was clear that the regional dimension came into effect concerning actors and small proportions of regional funding which are targeted towards the Life Sciences sector. Yet in the Swedish case, it was clear that the national system prevailed, with only regional competition being highlighted as a detrimental factor to development. However, in the Austrian case, it seemed that regional dynamics played a stronger role, as Federal States seem autonomous in their activities, and very much disconnected. This disconnection also echoed in the governance of the innovation system, with knowledge triangulation policies still quite disconnected in their orientation (European Commission, Erawatch, 2014a). Nevertheless, the Austrian innovation system seems rather hierarchical and disconnected, and could potentially learn from Sweden in this case, given Lundvall et al (2011) pointed out that intra-organisational interaction is necessary, as hierarchical modes of organising can create barriers. As such, the Triple Helix approach prevails in Sweden, which is possibly aided by the flat structure present in the country, as well as the types of funding programmes and various mechanisms in place to stimulate collaboration between different nodes. Therefore, focusing on the system dimension, rather than solely on STI policy, creates greater connections which are contextually relevant to the case country’s economic, political, and cultural traditions (Lundvall, 2005; Ramstad, 2009).

Overall, comparing systems, it is clear that convergence in approaches are taking place, however, it seems a leap is required in order to embrace new ideas and nodes of thinking, thus requiring further flexibility and openness within the system. Availability of funding is the core problem to overcome in this mission. In addition, the culture and ideology to adopt new ways of doing
things is necessary. Interestingly, within the Austrian system adopting mechanisms such as tax incentives and further autonomy are elements that the Swedish system recognises it requires. Nevertheless, the structure and governance of such systems are starkly different, which may begin to shed light on why perhaps Sweden is an Innovation Leader. However, this seems strongly connected to prevailing cultures which tie closely with the institutional framework in place. It is clear that both systems are not without their challenges. Of most significance was the finding that the structure of university systems is perhaps not as important at first glance as actual processes and cultures present. However, upon closer inspection, it seems structure has an important role to play in providing the physical infrastructure to complement an institutional framework upon which such processes can take place. As such, prevailing culture has a major role to play both inside universities, and within the broader innovation system.

To conclude, adoption of the aforementioned suggestions should aid the design of a more flexible system incorporating synergies and mechanisms to encourage collaboration and knowledge transfer, which should ultimately lead to economic growth, and may help to overcome the European Paradox (European Commission, 2007). However, ignoring these structural issues, particularly regarding targeted funding and development of infrastructure, will ultimately stall developments within each given system. This could potentially have lasting consequences on innovation and national competitiveness as a result, if private funding does not increase to meet the shortfall (Hoareau, Ritzen, and Marconi, 2012). This study has highlighted the importance of including all actors and being sensitive to their needs, as well as having a well-functioning and stimulating enabling environment, which has been proven to be heavily influenced by the prevailing institutional framework and innovation system. However, it is important to balance competing objectives within the system and within universities, given the varying missions universities are expected to carry out. Taking account of the lessons learned in this study may go some way to help Austria in its endeavour to become an Innovation Leader, and help Sweden to further elevate its activity. In a globalised world, now is the time to address these challenges in order to remain competitive and ensure these innovation systems and universities continue to develop, considering university technology-transfer is underutilised in many countries within Europe (IKTIMED, 2013).


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Karl-Heinz Leitner is a Senior Scientist at the Austrian Institute of Technology. He was Visiting Research Scholar at the Copenhagen Business School, and teaches Innovation Management (venia docendi) at the Technical University of Vienna. His main research interests cover changing R&D processes, technology foresight, research policy, and the valuation of intellectual capital. He has studied national and sectoral innovation systems and dealt particularly with the role of universities and science-industry linkages, amongst others funded by Ministries and the European Commission. His research has been published amongst others in R&D Management, and the International Journal of Innovation Management and Higher Education.

Anne Swanson is a Research and Innovation Consultant at winnovation consulting gmbh in Vienna, Austria, where she focuses on the utilisation of open innovation techniques. She recently graduated with an Erasmus Mundus Master in Research and Innovation in Higher Education (MARIHE). Her degree focused on the managerial aspects of global higher education, which was enriched by studies carried out in Austria, Finland, and China during the programme. Anne chose to specialise in national and regional innovation systems, triple helix theory, and the entrepreneurial transformation of universities during the completion of her Master’s Thesis.