Microsoft Innovation Centres around Europe aim to help harness great ideas and turn them into successful businesses while creating jobs, helping people and contributing to both Microsoft’s success and local European economies along the way.
The success of a business and its approach to corporate citizenship are often mentioned in the same breath, but does the relationship between the two really work in practice? For proof that their synergy is possible, look no further than the Europe-wide Microsoft Innovation Centres (MICs), which aim to show visitors the practical and commercial melding seamlessly with the inspirational.
Designed to foster technology innovation and knowledge transfer, the MICs have become incubators of innovation and support not just for business customers and partners, but also centres that encourage projects that help Europe as a whole. They are facilities for collaboration on innovative research, technology or software solutions, involving a combination of government, academic and industry participants.
For instance, the Belgian MIC in Mons was established with partners including HP and Mobistar, as well as the Belgian government, all sharing a collective focus on economic stimulation and job creation. This particular centre aims to create 250 local jobs in three years, illustrating how the MICs are not just about blue sky innovation, but address specific economic needs too.
So what exactly goes on behind the doors of these centres? The services offered by each centre vary, but the emphasis is always on tangible support that accelerates both technology and business development. Services typically include training, technology support, testing, office space, consulting and even helping to find partners and customers for users’ projects.
The MIC in Turin, Italy, is a case in point. Housed in the Polytechnic of Turin, one of the centre’s main specialties is embedded technologies for the industrial automation and automotive sectors. Examples include a three-year project with a local firm called BEPS Engineering, helping it evolve from a fledging technology start-up into a successful SME that is fast becoming a leader in advanced in-car infotainment.
Importantly, the Turin MIC did not just help BEPS with product development: it used its network of contacts to effect an introduction with Magneti Marelli, a worldwide system integrator and part of the Fiat Group. The result? Today, BEPS has a strategic partnership through the Turin MIC with Magneti Marelli to develop next generation infotainment platforms.
This end-to-end approach, where innovation and business support work in tandem, is at the heart of the MIC culture. Another example is a partnership between the Belgian MIC and mobile firm Orange that helped local firm Vivatel develop and launch a telephone service for the hearing-impaired. This is a simple yet ingenious concept, using a specially adapted call centre (itself staffed by employees with disabilities) to act as an intermediary, thus enabling real-time “conversations”.
Here’s how it works: the hearing-impaired caller uses a mobile phone to initiate the call, and this information then pops up on an operator’s screen in the call centre. The operator makes the call. If there are questions, the hearing-impaired customer can still be involved in a chat session. This is just one of a series of eHealth and mobile projects from the Belgian MIC.
The MICs do not always specialise in particular vertical markets or technologies. For instance, the Croatian MIC in Varazdin knows that the local market is inevitably limited by geographic and population size, so the emphasis has to be on helping local independent software vendors with technology and consulting services to help expand their potential into Europe and beyond. In common with other MICs, there is close alignment with BizSpark, Microsoft’s programme designed to support start-ups with access to free technology, support and market visibility.
Start-ups are not the centres’ only customers. Indeed, the users of the first Spanish MIC – in Manresa, near Barcelona – are usually established enterprises, whether small, medium or large.
The centre itself focuses purely on information worker technologies: change management, training and showing businesses how to exploit technology to improve their return on investment and increase productivity is the aim.
Initiatives include the Productivity Labs, which were attended by an estimated 2,500 people in 2009 alone, showing them best-practice technology applications in action. Not surprisingly, more Productivity Labs are planned for Spain and beyond.