Cluster Power

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Brainpower Appeal Perhaps the most universal magnet that brings businesses into clusters is brainpower. In some cases, clusters have actually been spawned from private sector spinoffs of university research, such as the high-tech clusters in Silicon Valley, Boston's Route 128 and the Tucson optics cluster. These spinoffs were often joined by existing private companies that saw opportunity in the emerging cluster. In a new twist on this pattern, Columbia University, Cornell University and Polytechnic University in Brooklyn have recently opened branches in New York's Silicon Alley to strengthen ties to that cluster.

For some multinational companies, like BASF AG, a $97 billion chemical company based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, location anywhere but in a cluster with a top-notch research base is unthinkable. When the German government outlawed genetic engineering a decade ago, the company quickly narrowed its list for a new worldwide biomedical research unit to the San Francisco Bay area and eastern Massachusetts. "We needed a place where the local community had the appropriate attitude toward biotech research," says Robert Kamen, president of BASF Bioresearch Corp., which chose to locate in a biotech industrial park in Worcester, Mass. "The biotech park is here because the University of Massachusetts Medical School is here. The cluster includes the medical school. Some of our staff have adjunct teaching positions with departments there."

The BASF unit relies on the concentration of biotech scientists in the Greater Boston area to assure itself a supply of top talent for its pharmaceutical discovery research in oncology and immunology. "Biotech production is a pretty limited profession. We've recruited mostly out of the local biotech industry," Kamen says.

The Future: Clusters of Clusters? Despite the success of the cluster strategy, there will likely be a shakeout sometime soon among clusters from different countries that compete in the same industry, says Emiliano Duch, founder of Cluster Competitiveness. So the latest and most difficult twist in cluster strategy will be to link and preserve the best companies in several clusters and get them to work together, he says. Members of the three motor scooter clusters in Spain, Italy and France are the first to participate in a pilot strategy that will attempt to integrate the best companies in these clusters. The project is partially funded by the European Commission, the executive body of the Brussels-based European Union. He predicts similar initiatives for several aviation clusters in Europe.

Because clusters rely on lots of personal contact, that means frequent travel for cluster participants from different countries. "We've had meetings constantly in all three languages," Duch says. The end result, he hopes, will be pocket-size multinationals. In the motor scooter project, the engineering and design will be based in the Bologna cluster, which has the strongest capabilities in that area among the three countries, while the manufacturing will be done in France and Spain. Already, he says, sharing information among three companies within the cluster has reduced the product development cycle time of plastic molds--the time from a designer's sketch to production--to 10 months from a European industry average of 14 to 15 months. "Even the Japanese can't beat that," he says. end

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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