The last few days of my time in Sweden were spent in Umea, the northern most point ever for me personally (just 189 miles from the Arctic Circle). From Umea the northern lights can be seen throughout the year if the night sky is dark enough. However, as it is the time of mid-summer, the sun is setting around 11:30 PM and back up again around 2:00 AM. For someone in the lower 48 of the United States, this is a magical experience and one that I want to always remember. It also gives you an entirely new appreciation for high-quality drapery in your hotel room.
Umea is home to two research universities (Swedish University of Agriculture SLU and Umea University) and three incubators (Uminova Tech, Uminova BioTech and Unminova Experience, which focus on IT/data, life science/pharma, and culture/creative respectively). Each of these entities is connected by a network of leaders spanning both academic institutions, the business community and regional government.
Through my many conversations while traveling around Sweden I have discovered that the creation of convergent areas, such as science parks and university areas of innovation, is quite different from the model found in the US. In the United States, the real estate and buildings of science parks are most often owned by the University or a subsidiary foundation/non-profit which controls (to a large degree) the planning, development and construction of facilities throughout the park. Once constructed, the university is able to coordinate and fund projects meeting their vision for engagement with industry by leveraging the real estate and infrastructure investments that have been made. Ultimately, the objective is to create a sustainable business model where the science park is leveraging its physical assets (in the form of leases and/or sales) to generate new revenue streams that fund operations, programming and growth. The real estate is the stage set allowing the institution to focus on the programmatic driven objectives of convergence and collaboration.
However, in Sweden, the National Government and local municipalities are much more engaged as owners and funders of science parks and maintain control of the real estate and facilities. Most often, the physical assets (land and buildings) of science parks in Sweden (as well as the universities themselves) are not owned or controlled by the academic institution or science park administration. They are instead designed, built and operated by a government controlled entity, Akademiska Hus, which then leases back to the institution the space which it occupies. These costs are then paid by a group of owners which include the university(ies), local economic development organizations and regional government. While this eliminates the real estate as a source of revenue, it also frees the leaders of the park to focus on the activities and companies located within the buildings and removes the responsibility of leasing and property management. Unlike many of the models in the US, the success of Swedish science parks is not measured by a real estate based ROI. For Sweden, science parks are viewed much more as social investments intended to connect the academic researchers, private sector companies and surrounding community in an effort to create new businesses, jobs, investment and innovations. The presence of multiple owners in a science park is also beneficial and unique to the Swedish model. By having financial buy in from the National and Regional governments, university, and private companies the science park is provided increased flexibility to attract and work with new companies coming out of their communities as well as the research institutions.
Uminova Innovation Science Park focuses on commercializing business ideas from researchers, employees and students at the Umea area universities and hospital as well as innovative ideas from companies (largely start-ups) in the region. Uminova offers several approaches to encourage strong collaboration between the various players. Current projects include:
- Shared Business Coaches: There is a sharing of professional business coaches between the incubators, which not only saves on cost, but also results in new connections and opportunities for the companies that otherwise would have been overlooked.
- Programmed Events: There are several programmed events that bring together the students and the companies into one space to interact and build relationships. These events are flexible and driven by the needs of the community. They are intended to be organic and always bring value to the collective group.
- Summer Entrepreneurs: Through the Summer Entrepreneurs project, students are required to form their own small service companies to meet the needs of scaling companies located in the incubators. This provides real life experience for the students (and maybe even some funds) as well as the companies looking for new talent and solutions.
- Course ABC (Academic Business Challenge): Every student in the university has the ability to apply for entry into this course. From journalism to science and engineering to architecture… The university and incubator leadership solicit real life problems from companies in the incubators and the surrounding region. From there, teams of 3 to 4 students are formed where each must come with a different academic background and (ideally) cultural experience. These teams then work with the owner of the challenge at the company and develop an assessment and recommended solution.
The universities are also working on great technologies and I spent time with several innovative companies in the environmental and sustainability fronts. Two that were highlighted during my time in Umea were especially interesting as they connect industry and academia while also applying their technology to social and environmental needs.
- SweTree Technologies: A for-profit company spun out of SLU that is creating new technologies focused on genetic research related to timber productivity and yield rates. This is a R&D driven company that has a unique partnership with the scientists at the university. 41 research faculty have formed a for-profit business, Woodheads AB, to manage the commercialization of their technologies and science. SweTree has a signed agreement with Woodheads AB to apply their science to the creation of new products and services. Royalties and revenues then flow back through the company to the researchers. This bridge between academia and the private sector ensures that the needed technical skills are available throughout the commercialization process (from basic research to new IP and ultimately sales and marketing).
- Remote Sensing Laboratory: These amazing researchers have constructed their own drones, engineered the structure to carry significant loads, and mounted multiple cameras that are able to capture urban and rural settings in three dimensions. One of the most interesting applications was their ability to capture and project environmental changes for areas and therefore inform policy and development plans in ways that ensure a more sustainable future and diversified ecosystem.
My new friends in Umea provided useful high-level insights into the creation and application of incubators and science parks in Sweden. They also provided several unique convergence examples that will bring fresh ideas to our team back in Research Triangle Park. I look forward to returning again soon to this beautiful part of northern Sweden and experiencing all that it has to offer… maybe next time for winter!