Jun 16, 2021 at 4: 50 pm

Rise of Innovation Superclusters

How can countries accelerate national transformation and compete in new, high-growth, high-value industries? Increasingly, countries are turning to Innovation Superclusters to innovate, compete and win on the global stage. For governments, Innovation Superclusters can be a key tool in the post-pandemic recovery toolbox.

Christian Rangen

33 MIN READ

An emerging global phenomenon

Globally there are some 7000 innovation clusters. The EU alone has just below 3000 clusters. A country like Norway has 40. Denmark counts 14. Business clusters, according to traditional literature, are naturally emerging phenomenon, developing in places with high density of naturally collaborating firms and along traditional value chains of cooperating companies.

But in the last two decades, a new phenomenon har emerged, The Innovation Supercluster. Over the past six years, the author has been involved in shaping, developing as well as researching and studying these new Innovation Superclusters.

Today, countries like Canada, Denmark and Thailand have official national supercluster programs. While diverse countries like India, Australia, Oman, Serbia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Norway are in various stages of their understanding of and development of Innovation Superclusters. Increasingly, governments are starting to realize Innovation Superclusters can be a new and potent tool in the national innovation policy toolbox.

In this article, we will explore this new development and discuss how Innovation Superclusters can help countries and regions in their post-COVID economic recovery and growth.

What is an Innovation Supercluster?

Business clusters, or agglomeration economies, are natural phenomenon in many regions and to many economic activities. Clusters have been recognized in management literature since the 1890’s, but tracing back to the earliest days of human organized economic activities, as suppliers, customers and partners naturally would group together.

In most parts of the world, clusters are understood as geographical clusters, often around a specific industry or field. Media, high tech, life sciences, medical technologies, space, maritime, finance, seafood, energy; these all have strong geographical clusters that have evolved and matured naturally over time.

Today, we are learning to build, shape and design far more impactful clusters. We see these new clusters rapidly developing, often built around the industries of the future, helping regions, nations and national leaders navigate economic shifts and prepare for new economic growth in future growth industries. We call these Innovation Superclusters. Since the early 2000’s, the term Innovation Supercluster has been evolving, shaping ambitious political and industrial thinking in Asia, the Americas and Europe.

Defining Innovation Superclusters

Today, we define an Innovation Supercluster with six key factors.

Innovative engines of economic growth, by connecting 100’s of members and partners

A Supercluster will connect members, partners, stakeholders, startups, corporates and financing bodies to accelerate economic growth.  Most Superclusters are membership-based organizations, some with zero membership fees, while others receive a significant portion of their financing from their 500+ member organizations.

Once established and connected, the Supercluster will develop shared go-to-market and business development opportunities for its members. The best Superclusters are experts at spotting and developing global business opportunities for its diverse member base.

Understanding that the Norwegian home-market would never be large enough to support a growing solar industry, the Solar Energy Cluster quickly established international business development teams and global growth programs. Taking its growing member base to East Africa and Singapore, the Solar Energy Cluster was able to develop several commercial market opportunities, in turn leading to large scale floating solar energy projects in Singapore.

Collaboration networks built around the industries of the future

Most Superclusters build out dense and tightly interconnected collaboration networks. These networks in turn become highways of new projects, new collaborations, mergers, acquisitions, and new industry-developing projects. The best Superclusters are actively developed around the high growth, high value industries of the future, like solar energy, digital, autonomous mobility and clean maritime solutions.

In Canada, the Digital Supercluster counts over 900 organizations from across Canada in sectors ranging from health care, forestry, education, heavy industries and software development. Under the leadership and guidance of CEO Sue Paish and the Digital Supercluster the member organizations aim to accelerate Canada’s digital transformation and make Canada one of the world’s leading digital nations.

Solving industry-level challenges & opportunities

Successful Superclusters work actively to identify, map and solve industry level challenges.

Consider the case of Norwegian NCE Seafood Innovation Cluster. The Bergen-based cluster has worked extensively to identify the barriers to industry growth, including sea lice, fish health and startup financing, then established large-scale collaboration projects to attack and solve said challenges. These strategic initiatives have led to the establishment of Aquacloud, an industry wide collaboration on sharing and analyzing data among industry players and competitors and the establishment of several finance for startup programs aimed at connecting national and international venture capital companies to the growing scale up ecosystem in the cluster.

Private-public partnerships, developed by design

Superclusters, identified in our research and work, are always private-public partnerships. These organizations are all part of the larger national economic transformation and development policy frameworks of their respective countries. Yet, to be successful, they need to be deeply anchored in industry leadership and genuine industry needs. This translates into an industry-led board and a strong business development focus.

In Canada, the Supercluster Initiative is owned and funded by ISED, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. The national government will invest up to $950M over a five- to ten-year period into the five national Superclusters. This funding is expected to be matched 1:1 by industry. Early data indicates that industry will invest 1.4 – 1.5X the government’s funding amount. This mechanism allows government to provide catalytic capital, in turn activating significant capital commitment from industry.

Trust-based collaboration platforms

Over time Innovation Superclusters become trust-based collaboration platforms. New connections and relationships are built and nurtured in a cluster context.

Increasingly, Superclusters are building out startup-, scale up- and fast-track to IPO programs where they focus on introducing and connecting the entrepreneurs with professional investors and venture capital companies. This facilitates better connections and speeds up pace of the investment cycle.

This trust-based foundation is critical in connecting diverse actors across academia, policy, industry and capital around industry shifts and emerging economic opportunities.

Magnets that attract talent, capital, researchers and companies

Truly successful innovation Superclusters become strong magnets for their countries and regions.
Accelerators, startups, investors, corporates, researchers all want to relocate to the leading Superclusters to better their chances of professional and personal success.

Consider the case of Cap Digital. French Supercluster Cap Digital is the country’s hub for digital transformation. With roots going back to 2006, the cluster has grown into well over 1200 members, completed more than 1600 R&D projects and secured well over $1,7BN R&D funding. Today, the cluster offers a highly attractive soft-landing program for startups and scale ups looking to get established in France. Increasingly, Cap Digital is a magnet pulling startups into the booming French tech ecosystem.

Canada’s Ocean Opportunity

Around the world, the ocean economy is gaining speed. From sustainable maritime shipping, solving the problems of ocean plastics, to sustainable aquaculture and clean energy, the ocean economy is becoming increasingly important. In fact, many countries are starting to realize they hold vast, untapped potential for innovation, growth and economic development in the ocean space.

Globally, around 2,5% of GDP comes from the ocean economy. For Norway, the ocean economy is over 25% of GDP. For the UK, the number is 2,7% of GDP.  Yet for Canada, the ocean economy sits at just around 1% of the national economy. This is despite Canada having the world’s longest coastline and one of the largest ocean territories in the world.

With almost 350.000 Canadians employed in the ocean sector, contributing $36BN to GDP, Canada’s ocean economy is sizable, but with massive potential for growth. Developed right, it has the potential to become one of the key industries of the future for Canada.

Canada’s Ocean Supercluster

This was the background that led to the formation of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, one of five national Superclusters in Canada. The Ocean Supercluster is eligible for up to $153M in national funding, to be matched 1:1 with industry funding, to accelerate Canada’s ocean economy.

Today, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster is an industry-led transformative cluster driving cross-sectoral collaboration, accelerating industry innovation, and growing Canada’s ocean economy in entirely new ways.  Counting over 400 members from across Canada, the Supercluster has rapidly grown into a national powerhouse for the ocean economy.

It is widely recognized that the global ocean economy is expected to double by 2030, reaching $ 3trillion. For Canada, the Ocean Supercluster is one of the key vehicles to capture a larger share of these market opportunities. The Ocean Supercluster is expected to create more than 3000 new jobs and contribute well over $14BN in GDP impact over ten years.

Three Types of Clusters

While much of the literature has focused on clusters as one-size-fits-all, we have identified three distinct types of clusters. Certain national cluster programs have a similar cluster segmentation methodology in place, fully recognizing that clusters have different maturity levels and expectations of economic impact.


Emerging Cluster

The first type is what we call Emerging clusters. Emerging clusters are typically young clusters. They are just starting out. Emerging clusters have a low number of members, frequently in the range of 35 – 75 members. They have a very limited resource base, with limited funding and often only one full-time cluster manager, supported by one to three part-time resources.

They naturally remain very local or regional in their focus. They tend to have very incomplete cluster structures, frequently lacking access to and involvement of key groups like private venture capital, startups, scale ups and accelerators.

By our estimates, between 3000 and 5000 of the global clusters could be counted as Emerging clusters.

Take the example of the Norwegian Ocean Autonomy Cluster. Located along the Trondheim Fjord, closely connected to the research division at NTNU, a university, the Ocean Autonomy cluster counts 45 members, currently not paying any membership fee (due to COVID-19).

The cluster was founded in 2019 and accepted into the national cluster program the same year. The Ocean Autonomy Cluster is Norway’s number one hub on ocean autonomy. Attracting members from industry, startups, scale ups, research and government, the cluster is quickly establishing itself as a leading global player in ocean autonomy.

Today, the cluster is developing the world’s first test site for autonomous ships. Here, in the Trondheim fjord, the cluster will develop and operate testing facilities and required infrastructure for autonomous vessels and operations.

Now, with a few years of proven results, the cluster is growing, attracting members and new financing. The Ocean Autonomy Cluster is likely to transition into the next category, Growth cluster, within one to three years.

Growth Cluster

A Growth cluster is a very different type of cluster. At this stage, the cluster management team has grown, often counting five to eight full-time employees. Membership has grown, frequently counting from a hundred to several hundred members, usually but not always paying members.

More importantly, by now the cluster is able to establish a significant number of industry collaboration projects. The cluster’s wider ecosystem is growing. The cluster is often able to identify and address structural challenges lacking in the wider ecosystem, like access to venture funding, market access into new, international growth markets or education of young talent for the industry.

At this stage, the Growth cluster will often start tracking its value impact, measured in contribution to GDP, new jobs created, or capital raised by its members. Interestingly, these clusters tend to be naturally expanding out of their local regions, often establishing first international partnerships and projects.

We estimate between 2000 to 3500 of all global clusters would qualify as Growth clusters.

Consider the case of Maritime Blue. Located in Washington State in the Pacific Northwest region of the  US, Maritime Blue, or just Blue, has rapidly grown into an innovation powerhouse for the state’s ocean economy. Founded in 2018, with a mission to implement Washington State’s Strategy for the Blue Economy, Blue has grown rapidly to more than 120 members from across the ocean sector. Led by CEO Joshua Berger, with five full-time staff, three part time staff and a diverse board with members ranging from Amazon, Wärtsila, SSA Marine, Port of Seattle, Pacific Northwest National Lab and University of WA; Blue has established a more robust organization and capabilities.

Quickly identifying a significant capital gap in the industry, Blue launched a Maritime Blue Capital Landscape Study. This in-depth study of early-stage and venture capital going into the Pacific Northwest’s ocean economy revealed a structural funding challenge with comparatively little financing going into the state’s ocean economy.

The report led to the formation of Maritime Blue Innovation Accelerator, led by Accelerator Program Director Josh Carter. Now running its second cohort, Blue’s accelerator is just one of several strategic projects to help develop the blue economy in the Pacific Northwest.

Looking ahead, the cluster is likely to expand its project portfolio, establish more international partnerships and increase the focus on value creation and economic impact in the blue economy.

Innovation Supercluster

Finally, Innovation Superclusters are a very different category of clusters. Globally, we estimate less than 100 clusters would really qualify as an Innovation Supercluster.

In our work, we find Superclusters having several traits that are significantly different from the other two types. First and foremost, a Supercluster is recognized by the size and membership base, but even more importantly by the value impact or value creation in the Supercluster. We find that successful Supercluster have far higher value creation then their peers. They also tend to have a much larger export share and just naturally work and compete globally.

Frequently, Superclusters tend to have far more resources, both in terms of government funding, member financing, project financing and staff. Canada’s Ocean Supercluster counts 22 employees, while French Cap Digital has nearly 40 employees.
The best Superclusters, over time, become strong magnets, widely recognized as global innovation hotspots in their field, drawing international capital, researchers and startups into the cluster.

Importantly, a country can only carry and support so many Superclusters. Our work indicates between three to ten Superclusters, beyond that it is unlikely to find sufficient industrial foundation or member support to truly drive a global Supercluster.

In October 2020, Denmark, with a long history of high-quality cluster policy and cluster program support, announced a new cluster policy. Titled, Innovation Power, (INNOVATIONSKRAFT 2021-2024), the new policy would support 14 clusters across Denmark. These 14 would effectively consolidate 42 previous Emerging and Growth clusters into a more ambitious Supercluster program.

Starting January 1st, 2021, the danish cluster landscape initiated a massive merger and consolidation process. The purpose behind the new program was to strengthen the innovation power in Denmark’s strongest and most promising industries and technology fields.

One of these new Superclusters is Odense Robotics. Now, under the new policy, Odense Robotics Cluster is Denmark’s national robot, automation, and drone cluster, with a goal to bring the entire robotics ecosystem together to speed up innovation and growth in the industry. With 20 employees, 300 companies in the robotics space and now five regional hubs, Odense Robotics is still just coming into its new role as a national Supercluster.

But, with significant experience behind it, the Odense Robotics Supercluster has established a clear valuation proposition; we strengthen your market position. This is backed up with five strategic focus areas; Develop new startups, speed up innovation, global growth, build new networks and increase member visibility.

It is still early, but everything indicates the revitalized Danish national cluster program will be able to deliver on its ambition to scale and support this new breed of Innovation Superclusters.

Superclusters vs. Ecosystems

Innovation Superclusters vs. ecosystems, how are they different?

The ideas around Innovation Superclusters challenge many of the traditional perspectives on clusters and clustering. Traditionally, in much of the literature, clusters were seen as the effect of a natural clustering or clustering effect of have many complementary and competing companies co-located in the same geography, with a high density of talent and closely link supplier-customer relationships; all factors driving the pace of innovation and, as a result, the competitiveness and economic outperformance of these regions.

Silicon Valley, Norway’s west coast oil & gas industry and Boston’s life sciences corridor are traditional examples of this this. These three examples all have a high degree of innovation capacity. They enjoy a very high clustering of complementary companies, education providers, talent and capital, and they are widely recognized as innovative regions on the global stage. They may have a strong clustering density. Yet, we suggest these are not Innovation Superclusters.

Innovation Superclusters, in our definition, are more actively shaped, built and led. They have formal operating organizations. They have active members, often paying a nominal membership fee. They have full-time employees, newsletters, web sites, annual reports and strategy documents. They develop and run large project portfolios. Innovation Superclusters are purpose-built national innovation engines.

Granted, Innovation Superclusters need to be anchored in a pre-existing industrial foundation. There has to be a certain, albeit limited, industrial foundation in place. This foundation needs to have a combination of talent, industrial leadership, entrepreneurs, research, anchor companies, technology base, market focus, innovation density and shared purpose; yet, and contrary to some academic research, we suggest that Innovation Clusters and Superclusters can be actively nurtured and developed out of a relatively thin foundation. Yet, with the right leadership, these clusters can quickly develop into thriving growth clusters or even Superclusters in less than a decade.

Innovation Superclusters vs Innovation Ecosystems, how are they different?

A Shifting Cluster Paradigm

Most clusters and cluster programs around the world are based on the Triple Helix framework.  Originating in the late 1980’s, the underlying theoretical framework of the cluster was getting industry, academia and government to better collaborate. The Triple Helix was a key construct as societies emerged into the knowledge-economy.

That paradigm is rapidly getting outdated. Since the early 2010’s, a growing number of clusters and cluster programs have been upgrading and expanding their theoretical frameworks to including capital and entrepreneurs. Through work by Professors Torger Reve (BI Norwegian Business School and Scott Stern (MIT), we are seeing a shift from the Triple Helix to the Pentagram. This shift is both a theoretical shift in the underlying ‘idea of the cluster’ as well as a practical shift.

Today, any cluster needs to update its foundation to better include, involve, activate and serve startups, scale ups, accelerators, incubators, business angels, venture firms, PE funds and large investment companies. Welcome to a new cluster paradigm.

The Five Stakeholder Groups in an Innovation Supercluster

Innovation Supercluster are often said to be serving their members. Today, that membership base is rapidly expanding from three to five key membership categories.

Corporates, SMEs

Traditional industry players are often the largest and most active member group in a cluster. Most clusters try to be industry-led, translating into having active industry engagements, industry executive as Chairman of the Board and a large number of programs and projects serving corporate and SME members.

In most Superclusters corporate members are the backbone of the Supercluster’s direction, leadership and early financing.

Academia

Ever since the introduction of the Triple Helix, clusters were supporting an increasing number of knowledge-driven economies around the world. Here, access to and close collaboration with academics, universities, researchers and research program were seen as vital to the cluster’s success.

This still is the case as the role of academia is critically important to most Superclusters. In Canada, the Scale IQ Supercluster is funding a number of professorships to improve long-term research and education in the field of artificial intelligence.

Government


Government, both on the national, regional and local levels are vital parties in a cluster. Connecting government agencies, national policymakers and local councils into the cluster can have a strong impact on the speed on innovation to establish testing sites, build out local accelerators and more.

Looking at cases like Thailand, Malaysia and Canada, visionary governments are often required to initiate, lead and support early national Supercluster initiatives.

Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs are often considered the ‘new addition’ the clusters. Despite being recognized in earlier cluster literature, most clusters around the world have ‘forgotten’ entrepreneurs over the past decades. This is changing. Now, startups, scale ups, accelerators and incubators are actively signing up as new cluster members. In turn, the cluster is developing new projects, like Canada’s Ocean Startup Project or Spain’s Avaesen clean energy cluster with its numerous startup and scale up programs. Recognizing the unique needs of its early-stage members, a growing number of Superclusters are building out in-house accelerator programs, fast-track to IPO programs or investor readiness programs for their members.

Capital

For most clusters and Superclusters, ‘Capital’ is the most recent group of members and also the hardest to identify, engage with and serve. Most clusters we have worked with have truly struggled to identify member prospects, develop value propositions and activate this group of members. In one cluster we worked with, we identified more than 125 potential capital members, but the cluster was only able to engage with a small handful of them.

Fortunately, this is changing. In countries like Australia, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark, Canada, US and France, private capital members, like business angels, business angel networks, venture capital firms, corporate venture capital firms and family offices are starting to get recruited into the clusters as active members. We have helped numerous clusters develop their cluster capital strategy and the global awareness of this fifth stakeholder group is rapidly rising.

Reinventing Norway’s national cluster program

Consider the case of Norway. Norway is widely recognized as having one of the world’s leading national cluster programs, with roots going back more than 20 years. With more than 60 clusters and smaller business networks across a national population of 5 million people, these clusters make up a large part of the national innovation infrastructure.

Despite the historical strengths in cluster policy, coming out of the 2014-2016 oil crisis, it became apparent that the cluster program was not sufficiently set up to help accelerate national transformation and take Norway into a post oil & gas economy.

The author was brought in in 2018 to help rethink and reinvent Norway’s national cluster program. Working with a very capable internal team, the new cluster paradigm was introduced.

Over the following three years the cluster program implemented:

  • From Triple Helix to Pentagram as the guiding cluster framework
  • Strong capabilities around scale ups and scale up ecosystem development
  • A series of initiatives around private risk capital, venture capital and fast track to IPO
  • A growing shift from traditional industries, often based on natural resource extraction to a growing number of industries of the future, often based on digital, renewable energy, health care and high-tech growth areas
  • Training and upgrading the internal national cluster team
  • A national cluster strategy platform
  • Advanced cluster leadership development programs
  • Cluster board development program

Much of this built around a new theoretical foundation and a vast series of visual strategy tools and canvases, all designed to help communicate, align and implement the new cluster paradigm in action.

Today, Norway enjoys a significantly upgraded cluster program and a growing number of clusters aspiring to becoming global Innovation Superclusters.

Why Clusters Exist; Grow, Transform, Build

In working with more than 120 clusters and cluster programs over the past years, a pattern has started to emerge. We call this pattern Grow, Transform or Build.

This pattern refers to the focus of the cluster and its members. Are we growing an existing industry? Are we transforming an existing industry? Or are we Building an entirely new industry? This may not always be apparent but is critical to the cluster’s strategic choices, long-term success and economic impact.

Grow

In Grow, the cluster is focused on expanding and growing the existing industry.

Here, the problem we are trying to solve is how we can continue to develop and improve an industry. Most likely, we are trying to grow the industry into new markets, apply new technologies faster, increase the collaboration and innovation, but underlying it all, is a shared ambition to reduce cost, increase margins and continue to grow the industry as-is.

In strategy, we would call this linear strategy or path-dependency.

This ‘grow’ reason is perfectly reasonable and may in fact be fueling most innovation clusters around the world. Here, there is little interest in and need for disruptive innovation or transformational business models.

A well-known example is the NCE Seafood Innovation Cluster. When it got started in 2017, the strategy was to 3X the industry’s value creation from NOK97BN to nearly 300BN by 2030. Following a strategy review, the cluster raised its aims and set out to 5X the value creation by 2050. This goal will be achieved, not by big bang disruption, but by steady growth, using new technologies into existing operations and removing the industry’s barriers to growth.

The ‘Grow’ model

  • Expand in new markets, often exports
  • Efficiency-driven innovation
  • Increase basic trust and collaboration among members

Transform

Next we have Transform. In this model, we are seeing an industry – or a cluster – go through significant, industry-level changes. We call these industry shifts.
The raison d’etre is to help members, partners and the larger economy navigate and accelerate through these shifts – often happening at a rapid pace.

Today, most energy-related clusters are realizing they no longer operate under a ‘Grow’ model. Rather, they are all – willingly or unwillingly – going through a ‘Transform’ moment.

In these clusters, the problem that is being addressed is how we can find new markets, new business models, apply new technologies, develop new partnerships and invest in entirely new business areas – often outside the current core business.

The ‘Transform’ model

  • Navigate significant industry shifts
  • Accelerate transformation within member companies
  • Bring startups and corporates together to speed up innovation

A great example of the transform model in practice is the Norwegian Energy Solutions Cluster. Based in the Norwegian oil & gas capital of Stavanger, the cluster is actively helping its members and the industry-at-large navigate the industry’s energy transition to low carbon oil and gas and renewable energy. Under the leadership of former Shell executive Tor Arnesen as Chairman of the Board and former Halliburton Director Egil Aanestad, the cluster has been growing into a transformative force for the energy industry. Working actively to connect and collaborate large companies and emerging startups, the Energy Solutions Cluster sees itself as a bridge builder, connecter and accelerant to help its members and partners better understand, navigate and strategize through the energy transition.

Build

Build is an entirely different category. In Build, the cluster is trying to build out industries that do not yet fully exist. This can be ocean autonomy solutions, deep sea mining, offshore floating wind energy, clean maritime solutions or any number of industries still considered to be on the horizon.

Several years ago, working with the Norwegian Solar Energy Cluster, few people took the cluster seriously in its first year. Surely, there was hardly space for a solar energy industry in Norway, not to talk about the acute lack of sunshine six months a year. Under the strong leadership of founder Trine Kopstad Berentsen, the cluster aimed for global growth, brought its early members into new market opportunities overseas and quickly built out the early pieces of a new growth industry for Norway. Today, Norway enjoys a booming solar startup scene, an active solar M&A landscape and a thriving solar energy IPO market. Much of this can be accredited to the early work of the Solar Energy Cluster.

The ‘’Build’ model

  • Develop a new industry from scratch
  • Very limited number of members early on
  • May struggle with funding and support in the early phases

Consider the Queensland Robotics Cluster. With an intent to accelerate robotics in Australia, the cluster has been actively shaping and building a vast innovation cluster to build out Australia’s robotics industry.
Founded in 2019, by Australian Andrew Scott, the cluster has been able to attract a significant number of startups and scale ups, as well as heavyweight venture capital investors like Softbank and Hax.
Yet, the industry is still very early in its development. Looking ahead the cluster and its members see a significant potential to build out a strong robotics industry, generating tens of billions of dollar in domestic and export revenue, while creating new high-value jobs across Queensland and Australia.

The ‘Grow’ model   The ‘Transform’ model   The ‘Build’ model
  • Expand in new markets, often exports¨
  • Efficiency-driven innovation
  • Increase basic trust and collaboration among members
  • Navigate significant industry shifts
  • Accelerate transformation within member companies’
  • Bring startups and corporates together to speed up innovation
  • Develop a new industry from scratch
  • Very limited number of members early on
  • May struggle with funding and support in the early phases
Table: Cluster patterns, Grow, Transform, Build (Rangen, 2020)

We believe it is critical for both cluster leaders, industry leaders and policymakers to understand the lens they bring to the cluster. Are we aiming to grow and support an existing industry? Well, then the cluster program will need to align with much of the existing industrial policies. Are we hoping to transform legacy industries and introduce a significant level of innovation and reinvention? In that case, we will need bolder and more daring policies and programs. Projects, programs and initiatives will need to match the transformational need in the cluster’s membership base. Or are we trying to build out entirely new industries, industries we may not have much foundation for or pre-existing capabilities in? in that case, more startups, scale ups, more international partnerships and vast amounts of venture funding may be required.

How Innovation Superclusters Get Started


A question we frequently get asked is ‘who starts it?’ and ‘how does Superclusters get started?’ Looking globally, we have been able to identify four unique ways Superclusters may get started.

Research

Research project shines a light on what already exists. Research helps drive attention and boost investments into the area. Research alone is insufficient to drive the development of a Supercluster program, but it can be a key factor in drawing attention and kick-starting the process. In Norway, going back since 1991, the publication of three decades of research on economic development, led by Professor Torger Reve has greatly helped develop a national appreciation of the value of Innovation Clusters.

In Eastern Europe, the author is supporting multiple early-stage research projects to identify potential Supercluster themes.

Lone Hero, Evangelist

Early Supercluster initiatives are most often driven by a small band of enthusiasts with funding from sponsors, corporates, and grants. We find this to be a very common starting point, with enthusiasts like Bill Tam in British Columbia, Trine Kopstad Berntsen in Norway being highly influential in getting Supercluster initiatives of the ground.

Often, these lone heroes start small, then they connect with industry and later engage governments to support and lead with policy and national programs.

Bottom-Up, Industry led

The third option is initiated and funded by the industry and key industry partners. To truly get the ball rolling and secure industry interest, a bottom-up, industry led working group is a powerful way to get an early Supercluster initiative of the ground.

The NCE Seafood Cluster got started as four industry CEOs got together, realizing it made perfect sense for them to collaborate on certain industry-level challenges. Over time, the cluster grew, hired its first CEO and joined the official national cluster program. Since 2019 the Seafood Innovation Cluster has been aspiring to become a global seafood Supercluster, but the first few steps were four industry CEO’s aiming to improve industry-level collaboration.

Top-Down, Government-led

The fourth category is initiated and funded by the Government; usually by the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Science, Innovation and Trade, economic development organizations or national innovation agencies.

In September 2015 BOI, Thailand’s Board of Investment, developed and launched a national Supercluster program. The program supported six national Superclusters and two Industrial Clusters. Amongst the six, were Superclusters for Digital, Food, Electronics and automotive.

Today, we see many governments and government agencies in the Middle East looking into Supercluster Programs to accelerate national transformation, notably in the areas of post-oil & gas industrial development.

While the government-led way of starting a Supercluster Program can be successful, it is vitally important to include and engage with industry and the wider ecosystem early and frequently. Genuine ecosystem engagement is a key part to any Supercluster strategy process.

The early beginnings of Malaysia’s Supercluster Initiative

Working in Malaysia in 2017, we got the chance to follow the rapid development of the early design of Malaysia’s Supercluster program. The lone hero was then-MaGIC CEO, Ashran Ghazi. He quickly saw the potential in developing a national Supercluster program to accelerate the development of Malaysia’s startup and innovation ecosystem.

Over a period of months in the fall of 2017 he and his team engaged with key industry leaders, national venture funds, senior leadership in sovereign wealth funds and innovation leaders across a number of industries, in the process building up support for the idea of a national Supercluster program.

Next, engaging with key ministries and decision makers at the ministry level, the team was able to connect the Supercluster program to a series of national economic policies and policy goals.

In December 2017, at the Global Entreprenurship Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s national Supercluster program was launched by the then-Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The program was designed to be built around five key industries of the future for Malaysia; clean energy, digital health, agriculture technologies, mobility and smart city. Following the 2017 launch and the subsequent election, the new government decided to review the project in line with their new economic development policies.

The Role of Government

In some of our earlier writing on the topic we have stated ‘visionary government required’. This statement still holds true. Around the world, we see no Innovation Supercluster Initiative that is not actively supported or even led by the government.

Yet, at the same time, the role of government is often misunderstood. In many places the role of government is often viewed as a financing source, as a bank. That would be a mistake. In our experience, government can take on a much bigger role or rather a much smarter role.

Checklist for the role of government in Innovation Supercluster initiatives

  • Framework
    Create the national Supercluster policy and framework.
  • Policies
    Align national economic development policies with the Supercluster program.
  • Selection
    Create the mechanisms for selecting, evaluating, and pushing the individual Innovation Superclusters. The competition between Supercluster candidates is a key success trait.
  • Financial
    Provide financing, up to 50% of total budget. The remaining amount to be matched by industry.
  • Training
    Provide strategic support, training, networking opportunities and leadership development for cluster staff and boards.
  • Champion
    Be a champion for the Superclusters and the new economic growth opportunities they create.

Canada’s Innovation Supercluster Initiative

Consider again the case of Canada. Starting in 2016, visionary industry leaders like technology entrepreneur Bill Tam in Vancouver and government leaders like Minister Navdeep Bains increasingly recognized the need to rethink Canada’s global competitiveness. There was a growing awareness of the need to shift policy to help accelerate Canada’s national transformation. With an extensive part of the economy based on traditional resource extraction industries, like oil sands, forestry and fishing, Canada was falling behind in the larger knowledge- and technology-driven industries.

Some of the challenges that were recognized included:

  • How can Canada shift the economy from natural resources (forestry, oil, oil sands) into more high-tech?
  • How could Canada develop more jobs in high-growth, high-value industries?
  • How can Canada accelerate the growth of new digital companies?
  • How can the Canadian ecosystem nurture more unicorns (early stage companies valued at more than $1BN)
  • How can Canada better compete – and win – in the global innovation race?

This led to the early formation of the ISI – Innovation Supercluster Initiative, initiated by industry leaders, it grew into a massive, national program, led and championed by Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry (2015 to 2021).

When the program first launched, 50 consortium applications were received from across the country. Out of these 50 nine were shortlisted for final consideration. These included early consortium proposals like the Mobility Systems and Technologies for the 21st Century Supercluster(candidate), based in Quebec and Clean, Low-Energy, Engaged, & Remediated (Mining) Supercluster (candidate), based in Ontario.

Through an intense application process, these nine were reduced to five winning candidates. The five winners were announced in February 2018 and kick-started one of the largest economic policy programs in modern Canadian history.

The National Vision Map illustrating Canada’s Innovation Supercluster Initiative (Rangen, 2020)

Digital Supercluster

Aiming to unlock Canada’s digital economy, the Digital Supercluster focus on technologies like virtual reality, data collection, advanced analytics, digital health and quantum computing. The Supercluster was quick to launch large-scale collaboration projects on digital twins, precision health and data commons.
Today, the Supercluster counts more than 900 members from all over Canada.

Protein Supercluster

Based in the Prairie Provinces, the Protein Superclusters mission is to transform Canada’s agriculture and food processing sectors. Key initiatives include increasing the value of traditional crops, while also developing plant-based meat alternatives. The Supercluster is actively developing new go-to-market programs, covering markets like North America, Asia and Europe, through its Farm-to-Fork Programs.

Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster

Advanced robotics, 3D-printing and industrial digitalization are key focus areas for the Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster. Based in Ontario, the Supercluster quickly set up projects to bring more advanced technologies into existing industries, while also developing the startup ecosystem. Long term, the Supercluster’s mission is help develop Canada into a world-leader in advanced manufacturing. To date, the Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster has attracted more than 3100 members from across Canada.

Scale AI Supercluster

The Scale AI Supercluster is pulling diverse stakeholders and sectors together to apply technology and build intelligent, AI-driven supply chains. The Supercluster has developed vast collaboration projects on AI-adaption, AI commercialization and scale up ecosystem to accelerate Canadian AI startups and scale ups.  Scale AI Supercluster has partnered with 24 incubators and accelerators with the goal of scaling more startups in the space.

Ocean Supercluster

Based in Halifax, the Ocean Supercluster aims to supercharge Canada’s ocean economy. Under the leadership of CEO Kendra MacDonald, the Supercluster has launched a series of projects like Technology leadership, Accelerated Ocean Solutions Program, Innovation Ecosystem and Ocean Startup Project, in the process establishing itself as one of the leading ocean Superclusters globally.

Today, counting more than 4.600 members across Canada and 285 projects launched in just four years, the Canadian Innovation Supercluster Initiative has quickly established itself as a bold innovator and role model for other countries aspiring to reinvent economic policies. Over the coming decade, the initiative is expected to create a total of 50.000 new, high-growth, high-value job and contribute $50BN to GDP

Critical voices have suggested that the bold effort is falling behind the plan to create value, but the jury is very much out on the long-term value impact of the Innovation Supercluster Initiative.

Economic Recovery Through Innovation Supercluster Programs

Today, as governments and industry leaders around the world grapple with economic recovery post-COVID a well-designed Innovation Supercluster Initiative can be a key policy tool to unlock new economic growth and accelerate national transformation.

The pandemic has boosted many digital industries, while devastated industries like aviation and tourism.
At the same time, it has also sped up the development of newer industries like clean energy, life sciences, digital health and micro mobility. Coming out of the pandemic and into recovery mode, it is up to leaders to select the right policies and programs to best compete for the future.

Three questions industry and government leaders should be asking themselves:

  • What are our high-value, high-growth industries of the future?
  • How well are we competing and winning in these key industries today?
  • What policies and programs do we have in place in to accelerate our economic development in a post-COVID recovery?

Competing on system-level innovation

Nations compete. Regions compete. While many leaders tend to focus on innovation and new growth at the company-level, we suggest thinking more at the system-level. This is where Innovation Superclusters come in. Innovation Superclusters allow you to pull in all stakeholders, create a trust-based collaboration platform, identify shared industry-level challenges and go after shared market opportunities in a global innovation race.

Whether you need to grow existing industries, transform legacy industries, or build entirely new high-growth, high-value industries; Innovation Superclusters may very well be the right tool for the job and help unlock new growth and accelerate national transformation.

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Author

Christian Rangen is a strategy advisor, faculty and serial entrepreneur. He works with governments, clusters and companies to accelerate transformation and find new economic growth. He is currently developing a global strategy platform with Strategy Tools. Connect with him on Twitter @Chrisrangen.

Notes

Much of the traditional cluster theory has been developed by Michael Porter, Paul Krugman, Henry Etzkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff, starting in the late 1980’s. In more recent times, academics like Torger Reve and Scott Stern have helped update and shape a more entreprenurial approach to cluster thinking and cluster theories. The pentagram framework is based on research at MIT and BI, then expanded upon in the context of Innovation Clusters.

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BONUS:

Definitions

Illustration: definitions of key elements in modern economic development policy

Cluster

Innovation clusters can be both naturally emergent or built. EU alone has 3,000 clusters, most aligned with an academic institution. Often very local by design and focus. Most are built around supply chains and/or the Triple Helix framework.  Small in size, limited funding. Often relying on project funding.

Innovation Supercluster

Innovation Superclusters are massive innovation systems, built around a single theme (i.e. solar energy or digital health). Designed around industries of the future, they are expected to generate significant value as they develop. Built around the five stakeholder groups, often clustered closely together.  Has a formal organization, board, CEO, staff, budget and annual reporting.

Ecosystem

Innovation ecosystems are thriving hot spots, often focused on entrepreneurship, capital & corporate innovation.  Mostly emergent but supported by government policies. Universities play a critical role. Will encompass multiple themes, i.e. tech, hardware, AI, mobility, health tech, & software. Does not have any single formal organization. Does not have a CEO.

National (or Regional) Cluster Program

A cluster program provides the national context, policy and program to support and develop clusters. Serves as the bridge between government’s industrial policies and single clusters. May include program design, capacity building, co-financing, selection and oversight of the various national clusters.

Accelerator Scale Up Program

Dedicated programs to help early-stage companies grow. Often 3-month format. Will usually invest $150K, get 7-10% equity. Can be held on-site or online. Often funded 100% by private investors. Y-combinator, Katapult Ocean and Hatch are great examples.

Corporate Accelerator

Program to help big companies innovate. Build a new business unit in just five days. Helps established companies identify and capture new market opportunities. Typically costs $30.000 –  per program. May be funded 50% – 50% between private and public.

Creative Innovation Hubs

Office spaces, innovation parks, co-working space, incubators or creative lofts. These physical spaces will very often be members of one or multiple innovation clusters. These hubs are single buildings or large parks with labs, offices, test facilities and more. Mostly a real estate investment case.

Innovation Districts

Large scale innovation areas in cities and regions. Often developed by long-term public planning and intervention. Frequently located in amenity-rich residential and commercial environments, often near universities. Clusters might be located within Innovation Districts.

Research Parks

Found at or near to universities, research parks tend to practice a more closed approach to innovation. Most Parks will also have a Tech Transfer Office (TTO) to help commercialize the research. In China, Zhongguancun Science Park hosts 19 clusters and 65 Unicorns.

Venture Builder Program

Dedicated program to start and build new companies in selected industries. X2 Labs Blue Revolution started 10 new ocean startups in 4 weeks. Anyone can apply. Rigorous selection. High-intensity program.  Build and launch new companies in weeks and months. Funded 100% by private investors.

Christian Rangen
Christian Rangen

Strategy & transformation advisor to companies, innovation clusters, ecosystems and governments around the world.

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