Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) appreciates the importance of innovation forums – currently the forum “BioH2BK Mitteldeutschland”, initiated by BioEnergie Verbund e.V. – Interview with Dr. Philipsenburg – Head of Department Sustainable Regional Innovation Initiatives

1) What does the BMBF fund through the “Innovation & Structural Change” program family and what is the guiding idea behind it?

With the “Innovation & Structural Change” program family, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is making a funding offer specifically tailored to structurally weak regions in Germany. This supports sustainable structural change and helps improve the competitiveness of regions by activating and expanding existing scientific, economic and social innovation potential. “Innovation & Structural Change” understands the regions as the totality of their possibilities and their innovation potential. The funding is therefore characterized by openness to specific topics, a bottom-up approach and a focus on regional effects. From this perspective, “Innovation & Structural Change” focuses in various funding programs on strengthening particularly important innovation actors, network structures and processes in regional innovation ecosystems.

2) How did the program family come about?

“Innovation & Structural Change” is based on the experience gained with the “Enterprise Region” program family. The aim of this program family, which was launched by the BMBF in 1999, is to strengthen the innovation landscape in eastern Germany. Here, the BMBF has set and continues to set important regional impulses. With “Entrepreneurial Regions”, we have shown that, together with local players, it is possible to drive change in the regions through innovation. The new Innovation & Structural Change program family continues to focus on innovations as the key to successful and forward-looking regional structural change, but broadens the geographic focus by addressing structurally weak regions throughout Germany.

3) To date, there are four funding programs that are intended to accelerate regional structural change through research and innovation. Please briefly describe them on the basis of key features and differences.

The “Innovation & Structural Change” program family was launched in 2017 and is implemented in several funding programs with complementary objectives and target groups. Four measures are currently underway, with more planned.

1./ „WIR! – Change through innovation in the region“

With WIR!, the BMBF supports the emergence of strong innovation alliances in the regions beyond existing innovation centers. Funding is provided for interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral regional alliances from business, science, civil society and public administration. Together, the alliance partners develop new strategic approaches for a forward-looking field of innovation in their region.

2./ „RUBIN –Regional entrepreneurial alliances for innovation“

With RUBIN, the BMBF strengthens the innovative capacity of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in structurally weak regions in particular. Funding is provided for company-driven alliances that bring together technological, scientific and economic expertise in a clearly focused thematic area with high innovation and growth potential.

3./ „T!Raum – TransferSpaces for the Future of Regions“

The universities and research institutions are at the center of T!Raum. Together with regional companies and other partners, they are to develop and test new approaches to knowledge, idea and technology transfer in an experimental way.

4./ „REGION.innovativ“

REGION.innovativ supports regional alliances in addressing new research and innovation topics and collaborating with new partners. The three funding rounds to date have focused on different cross-cutting topics, e.g. labor research, the circular economy, or, in the current third round, questions of societal innovative capacity.

4) Do you measure the success of the programs and if so, how or by what criteria?

We have all our programs regularly evaluated by independent third parties. The criteria and methods used depend on the specific objective and design of the program in question. However, common guiding questions of evaluations are always: Were the objectives of the funding achieved? Were the goals set correctly? What concrete results and effects did the funding produce? In addition to indicators such as publications, patents or company start-ups, we are particularly interested in structural, but also softer factors, such as cooperative relationships that have developed, competencies acquired by the partners in the project or whether structures that have been created have become permanent. Last but not least, it is very important for us to examine which elements of the support were particularly effective. Did we set the right incentives? Were the funding conditions appropriate? Can we identify starting points for improving our funding procedures? Evaluations also teach us a lot for the development of new funding programs.

5) The SME Innovation Forums are another BMBF funding initiative. Which players is it aimed at?

With the “SME Innovation Forums”, we primarily want to strengthen regional SMEs and their innovation activities. Therefore, SMEs, state and non-state universities, non-university research and educational institutions as well as associations, societies and other organizations dedicated to research and development are or were eligible to apply. The funding initiative is coming to an end and its impact is currently being evaluated.

6) What are the goals of this funding initiative?

Cooperation between business, science and other partners is essential for innovation. However, small and medium-sized enterprises often lack the personnel and financial capacities for their own research and also access to current research results. The “SME Innovation Forums” funding initiative enables participating companies to establish sustainable innovation partnerships with research and educational institutions and other players at regional and national level. The funding is deliberately designed to be open-topic in order to provide scope for working on different fields of innovation. In this way, the “SME Innovation Forums” act as an initial spark for new networks that go far beyond mere project work and lead to strategic alliances.

7) How many innovation forums have been funded by the BMBF so far?

The funding offer was very strongly taken up. The predecessor program “Innovation Forums”, which was part of the “Enterprise Regions” program family, already funded 181 innovation forums in eastern Germany over a period of 15 years (2001 – 2016). Under the subsequent funding initiative “SME Innovation Forums”, 89 alliances have been funded to date.

8) One of these forums is the “Innovation Forum BioHydrogen + BioConversion Central Germany”. Dr. Philipsenburg, you have accompanied and supported the Innovation Forum from the very beginning. In your view, what was the potential at the beginning of the project and what relevance does the topic of the Innovation Forum have today?

With its National Hydrogen Strategy, the German government has demonstrated the importance it attaches to green hydrogen and German hydrogen research. Green hydrogen, as it is known, is produced from renewable energy sources such as wind, sun and biomass and is intended to help achieve climate protection targets. The “BioHydrogen + BioConversion Innovation Forum” (BioH2BK) focuses on biomass as an energy source and builds on the results and synergies of existing networks in Central Germany. By linking the two innovation fields of biohydrogen and bioconversion, the aim is to initiate a sustainable, biobased circular economy in the long term and thus create value in structurally weak rural regions. With the BioEnergie Verbund e. V. based in Jena, the conditions in the Central German region are particularly good for advancing the goals of the alliance with the Innovation Forum. Since the topic of green hydrogen is now at the top of political and scientific agendas, the Alliance is right on target. In my opinion, special potential lies in the transferability of the approach to other rural regions.

9) How would you evaluate the course of the project in retrospect? From your perspective, what opportunities, but possibly also challenges, are associated with the continuation or further development of the BioH2BK Central Germany Innovation Forum?

With the BioH2BK Innovation Forum, you have set yourself the goal of establishing an innovation cluster in Central Germany to leverage the promising potential in the innovation fields of green hydrogen and bioconversion. For SMEs in particular, this interlinking opens up new innovation and market potential that they would not be able to tap on their own. With the topic of green hydrogen, the focus on biomass and the expertise available in the region – here I would also like to mention the Twenty20 consortium HYPOS, which we support – you have laid the foundation for sustainable cooperation and transfer. The challenge you face now, after the end of the funding, is to secure the results and consolidate the partner structure. The establishment of a cooperation and communication platform offers the opportunity to jointly address identified research and development needs and to generate new impulses for innovations across industries and disciplinary boundaries.

I would like to thank you for your commitment in organizing your innovation forum in such an important future-oriented field of innovation and wish you and all participants every success in its implementation!


Photo credit: BMBF/Innovation & Strukturwandel/Thilo Schoch

Short CV Dr. Gisela Philipsenburg

Dr. Gisela Philipsenburg studied East Asian economics/economic policy in Duisburg and Soka/Japan. After receiving her doctorate, she joined the international department of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2003 and moved to the strategy department the following year. From 2008 to 2013, she worked in the Federal Chancellery for Science, Research and Innovation. She then returned to the BMBF as head of the Innovation Policy Unit, where her responsibilities included the federal government’s high-tech strategy and concept development for an agency to promote leap innovations in Germany. Since 2019, she has headed the “Sustainable Regional Innovation Initiatives” unit with a focus on promoting structurally weak regions and strengthening the structure of coal regions.