The economic force of small enterprises

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Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) in Europe

There are an estimated 23 million SMEs in Europe, employing 75 million people. They form the backbone of the European Union economy, contributing 65% of GDP (gross domestic product). For the European Union to retain and further enhance its competitiveness, the development of SMEs is essential. Encouraging innovation by enhancing investment in research activities to acquire new knowledge for growth in Europe’s knowledge based economy is the key to this development[1].

Marine biodiversity and SMEs

An Akvaplan-niva research scientist takes benthic samples near an oilrig to determine the health of the seabed.

The MARBENA project

Marine biodiversity research is a sector which has a wide diversity of SME involvement. During the MARBENA project, a precursor to the MarBEF network, a position paper was produced to examine the possible role of SMEs and large industries in marine biodiversity research. This paper concluded that a series of actions were needed to increase the involvement of SMEs in research networks. The MarBEF network aimed to explore these further, and established some long-term aims:

  • to increase awareness of biodiversity issues within SMEs and end-users, and to identify where biodiversity research could benefit their activities
  • to increase involvement of SMEs in biodiversity research in general
  • to increase funding of SMEs working with biodiversity research and biodiversity applications
  • to explore how SMEs can act as a mechanism for the exploitation of new and existing technologies and observing systems, in the exchange between basic research institutes and the industry.

MarBEF addressed these points through a number of targeted actions led by the two main SME partners directly involved in MarBEF, namely the former Ecological Consultancy Services Limited from Ireland and Akvaplan-niva from Norway. Both companies had first-hand knowledge of how SMEs operate within the marine biodiversity research sector and what the needs of SMEs and end-users of marine diversity information are[1].

The needs of SMEs for marine biodiversity research

MarBEF identified that SMEs in the marine biodiversity sector can be divided into three main categories:

  • Producers, exploiters and marketers of biodiversity: mariculture, fisheries, tourism, bio-prospecting, etc
  • Manufacturers and developers of equipment: commercial equipment and gear for the above groups, research equipment, etc
  • Research and consultancy companies: providing a service to industry and governments

SMEs within each of these categories have a need for marine biodiversity research in order to ensure their competitiveness and sustainability. Marine biodiversity research carried out for SMEs includes a diversity of research topics including[1]:

  • physiological studies (growth, reproduction, metabolism, feed conversion, etc)
  • life-history studies, habitat preference and distribution of target organisms
  • environmental drivers influencing target organisms
  • studies of impacts of gear on biodiversity
  • biological indicators (anthropogenic impacts, climate change)
  • ecotoxicology
  • biodiversity mapping and monitoring
  • general applied biodiversity research

Involvement of SMEs in marine research

The SME group of research and consultancy companies provide a key strategic link between research and industry. However, progress in science and technology occurs so rapid and involves so many fields that in general consultants find it difficult to keep pace with developments. In fact, scientists themselves are only able to keep themselves updated in highly specialized niche areas of knowledge. Similar to consultants, scientists are, not unlike the general public when something outside of their field is being discussed. Therefore the direct involvement in a network of excellence such as MarBEF allows consultants to stay up to date and involved with the latest research and in turn to apply this knowledge to a practical setting.

The knowledge which is gained within a research project is, in turn, applied in areas such as environmental impact assessments (EIAs), which have become an increasingly important tool – not only to assess the environmental effects of a proposal but also to eliminate associated environmental problems out of the design plans.

However, the aims and objectives of all SMEs are primarily commercial, and any activities that SMEs become involved in need to, in the long or short term, generate income. While MarBEF has been successful in attracting SMEs as associated partners during its lifetime, the future challenge remains: how to retain and increase the number of SMEs[1].

SME workshop

MarBEF held a workshop to identify ways to improve SME participation in EU marine biodiversity research programmes, to identify obstacles and see how best these could be overcome. The workshop included representatives from the EU SME research unit, environmental consultancies, the oil and gas industry and bio-tourism. The outcome was a white paper outlining the opportunities for SMEs in EU marine biodiversity research. The paper summarised that, despite the encouragement from the EU in providing specific funding opportunities for SMEs, practical barriers are still particularly prevalent with a high financial risk in some cases, not to mention the administrative complexity of applying and participating. Participation of knowledge-based SMEs in the marine biodiversity research sector is still under-represented; this is most likely due to the complexity of the field along with the challenge and unclear benefits of converting the results of participation in such projects into a marketable commodity[1].