Enabling small and medium-sized businesses to invest in research and innovation, a network of Spanish research centers provides support and infrastructure to help these organizations develop new technologies for a changing world.
In a cavernous hall in Valladolid, Spain, test vehicles can plow into a wall at speeds up to 125 miles per hour. This high-speed facility for materials testing and vehicle safety, housed in the Research and Development Center for Transportation and Energy (in Spanish, Cidaut), provides both automotive and materials companies— as well as Cidaut's own researchers— the tools needed to test novel materials and evaluate the safety of different forms of transportation. Cidaut is part of a private association of Spanish technology centers, whose organizing body is known as Fedit. Fedit comprises 67 such centers around the country; some of them have been in existence since the 1960s.
For decades, Spain functioned largely as a manufacturing facility for the rest of Europe, importing new products and technologies from outside the country. "We realized that we needed to improve our products if we wanted to compete, " says Diego Lafuente, director of the network of Fedit centers. But not so long ago, most Spanish companies were small— often family-owned— businesses, and lacked the capital to invest in appropriate tools for in-house R& D. Then, in order to compete, companies in complementary fields began to pool their resources and form privately-funded research facilities. These centers also work in partnership with local universities and governments.
"These technology centers were created to be close to the market, " says Ricard Jiménez, scientific director of Ascamm, a materials research center in Barcelona. "We work for industry and conduct research and development, and the goal is to sell a final product. "
There are many different models for these partnership centers. Cidaut, for instance, which works primarily in transportation and energy, may develop new technologies for companies that produce automobile parts. Or technology center researchers may work simultaneously with companies that compete directly against one another. At times research projects are formed as partnerships among companies and centers, while in other cases the center may sign exclusivity and confidentiality agreements with a single company.
At least 51 percent of the shares of each technology center are owned by private companies, while the rest may be held by universities and local and national associations. At least 40 percent of center funding comes from contracts with private companies, and the remainder is sourced from competitive local, national, or EU grants. "It's an unusual model, " says Lafuente of outsourcing R& D to private research centers, but it works. The centers have a track record for enabling the creation of patents, new products, and spinoff companies, and Fedit has shown that they also demonstrate the payoff of R& D investment to small companies, which may not have realized their potential in the past. One Fedit study shows that an increase in private R& D investment over the past five years can be attributed to the work of the technology centers.
The centers can also help guide company research. "If centers work with a variety of companies in a particular field, they gain a great deal of expertise, " observes Lafuente; that expertise in turn enables these technology centers to anticipate the needs of the marketplace. Juan Carlos Merino, director of Cidaut, agrees: "Our [research] ideas are generated by the fact that we work in the real world, every day, with companies. "