A theoretical view on public-private partnerships in research and innovation in Germany

Knut Koschatzky
Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research

Introduction and aim
Collaboration with universities and other research institutes in the field of strategic basic research offer companies the opportunity to carry out respective research without building up own resources and infrastructures. One mode are public-private partnerships (PPP). PPPs are characterised by a long-term institutional and strategic cooperation in order to achieve complementary goals by jointly operated research activities (Buckland 2009). Both sides bring in own resources and jointly share risks and possible income from the exploitation of research results (Becker 2003).
The objective of this paper is to integrate the funding initiative of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) "Research Campus - partnerships for innovation" (Forschungscampus - Partnerschaft für Innovation) in the context of research cooperations between academia and industry and to analyse significant characteristics of the 'Forschungscampi' in their build-up phase.
Research methodology
The study develops a theoretical framework for the empirical analysis of PPPs in strategic research. The paper explores three theoretical perspectives, namely transaction cost economics, innovation economics and economic geography. Transaction cost economics deal with coordination, control, governance, and regulation, with hierarchy in cooperation relations, with trust, opportunistic behaviour, and the absorptive capacities of the partners. Innovation economics can be applied for analysing the kind of distributedness of innovation processes, the openness of innovation, knowledge generation and exploitation processes, the role of human resources, and market orientation. Economic geography, finally, brings in the perspective of spatial and cultural proximity in exchange processes, the role of embeddedness, and the kind of knowledge which is relevant for face-to-face contacts. Main conclusions from this theoretical discussion are summarised in a heuristic approach which will be used as a framework for the analysis of strategic research partnerships funded by the German Forschungscampus programme.
Results and implications
The analysis is based on views and assessments from managers of the nine 'Forschungscampi' and involved companies. We interviewed all 'Forschungscampi' managers in 2014 and 2015 each, all rectors or presidents of the involved universities in 2014, and carried out mainly telephone interviews with two to three companies per campus in seven of the nine 'Forschungscampi' in 2015 (Koschatzky and Stahlecker 2016).
The findings can be summarised as follows:
1. Transaction cost perspective
'Forschungscampi' are a long-term mandatory partnership (up to 15 years) based on reliable, contractually regulated relations. Their organisational status differs (association, limited liability company, non-profit company) and thus their coordination is regulated and organised differently as well (campus offices, board of directors, campus coordinators). Hierarchical relationships exist, depending on scientific excellence of the research partners and the financial abilities of the companies to invest in the Forschungscampus. Resources are pooled through the 'under one roof' concept and complementarity exists regarding the partners’ specific competencies in pursuing a jointly formulated research agenda. The partnerships are strategic networks with a high degree of central powers shared between mainly large firms and academic organisations.
2. Open innovation perspective
Within a Forschungscampus, knowledge flows openly between the partners, even though it is regulated by confidentiality agreements. The aim is to generate innovation in new (technological) fields in order to create new markets and applications. 'Forschungscampi' are regarded as a platform for defining new bilateral or multilateral projects; in this respect, the campus is open. On the other hand, it is a protected space because this kind of collaboration is based on trustful, sometimes long-existing relationships between the partners. These relationships have to prove their stability and sustainability within this new form of cooperation. Therefore there is an inherent tendency to focus on the stabilisation of the existing network and not to open it up too quickly to other organisations, especially possible competitors.
3. Economic geography perspective
Geographical proximity is a mandatory funding principle, so the participating organisations do not have a choice to act differently. Some companies criticised this rigid principle, but the majority of the interviewed partners are confident that close personal exchange in one laboratory or one building is a success factor (combination of geographical and social proximity). Some companies practice this kind of close collaboration also in other partnerships, so that it is not fundamentally new to them. The proximity principle is implemented differently in a way that university personnel is nearly fully present on the campus (four or five days a week), while companies prefer two or three days per week at most in order to secure the knowledge exchange with the company by an approximately two or three days presence per week in the company.
Conclusions and main outcomes
Our study results can be seen as a first attempt to contribute to a shift from pre-theoretical to theoretical analysis of strategic research partnerships. According to Bozeman (2013: 312), many case studies in this field present anecdotic evidence, but do not contribute to a theoretical framework composed by either a new theoretical approach or theoretical explanations from different strands of the theoretical debate. Therefore, more theory-based studies are necessary in order to formulate an analytical framework which contributes to the advancement of theoretical and empirical studies in this field.