Below we describe the three illustrative cases that have been used for the analysis.
ENP green economy
The Entrepreneurship Programme for the Green Economy started in 2008 to support entrepreneurs with ideas in the green economy, for example, in the areas of energy, fish, farm animals, hunting, agriculture, food, the environment, gardening, and the entertainment industry. To participate in ENP Green Economy, applicants had to have a new idea and exhibit a strong driving force for starting a new business or a new section in an existing business. ENP Green Economy was also open for persons who already had a business, for example in agriculture, but who perhaps had found another niche that would complement and strengthen their existing business. Recruitment to ENP Green Economy was made through a written application and personal interview, and the applicant’s driving force and engagement were considered more important than the quality of the idea itself. In other words, the entrepreneur/idea owner came ahead of the ideas in the selection process.
The main stakeholders in ENP Green Economy were the regional university, which was responsible for conducting the project, and a stakeholder organisation in agriculture and green economy whose tasks were to anchor and market the programme. The county council acted as financial backer and overseer to ensure that ENP Green Economy fulfilled its stated goals. There was also an informal connection with a local network (comprising around 100 entrepreneurs) who, together with the university, had long experience of providing education, coaching, and mentoring in technology and knowledge-intensive entrepreneurship .
During 2008–2013, ENP Green Economy was conducted six times. Around 80 persons (aged 25–60 years, with over half women) in more than 70 projects participated, resulting in over 50 new firms or other business activities. Approximately 10–20 persons with as many ideas participated in each programme. Most of the participants were sole entrepreneurs, but occasionally, a team would participate. The programme was free of charge; however, participants paid their own travel and room and board expenses. The county council contributed SEK 400.000 per programme.
Below are some examples of the firms and business activities started in ENP Green Economy:
Web-shop (shop for emotional motivators)
Corporate farming (biodiesel production)
Education and Visitor Centre (outdoor education)
The Green Restaurant (locally grown, organic food and drink)
Recreational horse riding (riding, riding lessons, and tourism)
On-farm slaughterhouse (small-scale, stress-free slaughter)
Sourdough bakery (home-made bread, café, and catering)
Excavation contractor (contractor)
Screen doors (import of mosquito-proof screen doors)
Industrial resource (subcontractor in Computer Numerical Control—CNC-technology)
Timber (wood crushing and processing)
As the programme progressed, one interesting observation was that the firms being started exhibited little growth in a number of employees and turnover in sales. The best examples, like the Green Restaurant and the on-farm slaughterhouse, hired just a few more persons and increased net sales by only a few million SEK (a few hundred thousand USD). This was in contrast to previous entrepreneurship programmes in metropolitan areas in sectors that were more technology oriented, and where a substantially higher percentage of firms with relatively strong, early growth had been started.
ENP Green Economy had a highly practical orientation. All resource persons in the programme, from workshop leaders to coaches and mentors, had solid experience in starting and running a business—but not necessarily in the green economy. The resource persons came primarily from the local network, and all had previous collaboration experience from other entrepreneurship programmes with similar designs but other target groups. Much of the programme’s success could be attributed to the use of entrepreneurs with just such experience, that is, from running their own business and from their experience in educating and training other entrepreneurs in a form such as this. The programme comprised the following three types of activities:
Workshops focused on business planning, marketing, sales, soft factors in entrepreneurship, funding, presentation technique and rhetoric, practical use of the Internet, branding, and general leadership questions.
Individual coaching sessions where the participants could meet an experienced entrepreneur who gave advice and guidance within the framework of the programme content.
Mentorship where participant groups had access to an experienced entrepreneur, but where the design was not strictly guided by the structure and process of the programme but was more informal where the participants could set the agenda themselves.
The participants evaluated each section of the programme when the section was completed, and the evaluations showed unanimously that the programmes had given the participants much knowledge that was an advantage for their entrepreneurship processes. Below are some remarks taken from the evaluations:
I had no idea how to proceed with my idea. The programme helped me take a giant step forward.
My idea was questioned in a friendly and constructive way.
The programme gave me inspiration and a push forward to the next step in development.
The structure I was given for developing my idea was very valuable.
The quotes show that the programme gave the participants greater knowledge of business processes, but also inspired them to continue their entrepreneurship, which could be the development of an idea or letting go and changing the idea. What was also valued in the programme was the social networking, for example, during lunches and coffee breaks, the participants could discuss informally with each other, which in turn created strong relations between the participants. That is, the programme enabled the participants to extend their resource base. As a new entrepreneur, with a new and perhaps different idea, especially in rural areas where actors in business and industry are fewer than in the cities, entrepreneurs often feel alone. The value of meeting other persons in a similar situation is even greater [26, 27]. Thus, the programme also became an important meeting place for exchange, learning, and bringing people into contact with each other.
The sustainability incubator
The sustainability-oriented rural incubator was started some ten years ago with the ambition to develop economically sound ideas with a sustainable focus, both ecologically and socially. The target group was entrepreneurs in new and established firms and organisations. The idea was to create a platform for the development of business opportunities in agriculture and the timber industry and, eventually, become a centre—a creative meeting place—for developing green industries. With that focus, the sustainability incubator was one of the first of its kind in Sweden.
The leading actor behind the incubator was the county administrative board, which was responsible for most of the investment and operation costs. Other central stakeholders who participated in the initiative were the Regional Council and the local university. These held seats on the board of the incubator and became important for its strategic development. The sustainability incubator was run by an operational director, a board, and many loosely connected resource persons with skills in both business development and green industries.
The incubator quickly began filling its spots with a handful of interested tenants. An agenda of seminars and workshops were arranged in, for example, business development, innovation, and effective use of resources. In the beginning, these attracted many participants. The incubator faced a rosy future. After a little more than two years, however, problems began to develop with its activities:
It was difficult to maintain a positive inflow of entrepreneurs with sustainable ideas, and the incubator found it more and more difficult to keep to its original business idea.
The incubator could not fulfil the requirement of the stakeholders to create sustainable growth firms; the incubator tenants did develop, but growth was not appreciable.
Fewer and fewer participants attended the seminars and other activities, and those who did participate had often attended previously, so the inflow of new thoughts and ideas was low.
Although the Sustainability Incubator was located in an agricultural region near an extension campus of a larger university, there were great difficulties reaching out to and establishing a critical mass of potential entrepreneurs and idea holders. Naturally, the Incubator found it difficult to recruit from the group they had initially targeted. The result was that the stakeholders felt some kind of action was necessary. They decided to recast their idea as a combined incubator and business hotel with space for around 30 paying guests. Today, the incubator offers various types of services, not only to tenants but also others interested in acquiring access to competence and networks in their sector, for example, agriculture, egg production, effective food production, and bioenergy.
Events forced the sustainability incubator to change and broaden its original focus and accept other types of firms in order to retain their premises and a sufficient inflow of tenants. Today, the incubator is considered to have a modest profile in sustainable business start-ups.
The studied region is one of the counties along the Swedish coast where tourism and agriculture are important business sectors—in some parts of the region, these sectors dominate. Two large industrial firms are located in the central areas, and a university campus in the county seat. The region lacks the critical mass and dynamics commonly found in the metropolitan areas; however, there are many small and medium-sized firms, both in tourism and in other areas that are protected and supported. The rural character of the region makes it difficult to arrange person-to-person meetings due to the distances and the somewhat poor road quality; collaboration between areas has been limited, and also within various areas. This situation has made it difficult for the region to create a functioning, cohesive system for supporting innovation. To address this, a project, “Innovative Growth”, was started to create a more cohesive and effective regional innovation support system.
Innovative Growth ran between 2015 and 2018; the Agency for Regional and Economic Growth financed the project with funds from the EU Regional Fund. The project budget was a little over SEK 7 million (approximately USD 800,000). The overall aim of the project, according to its application, was to create a permanent regional innovation system among the actors in the region to improve innovative sustainable growth in existing small and medium-sized firms. The project, which was led by the Regional Development Fund, had two main target groups: the primary target—small and medium-sized firms interested in innovation and growth and with ideas and development projects that need support from the regional support system; and a secondary target—support actors, including those on the county level, who together comprise the regional support system.
As mentioned above, the reason for starting such a project was that the project applicants felt that the region lacked a functioning innovation support system. At the time of the application, there was almost no collaboration, at least not on a broad level, among the supporting actors in the region. There were support actors, but they were ineffective and uncoordinated, and their work often overlapped. Some of the actors possessed general competence and sometimes also specialist competence, but these were not made available in a cross-boundary manner. The owner–manager or entrepreneur could only hope to meet the right actor by coincidence. Some areas had other competence gaps, for example, medical technology and health. The system was described as silos with no external communication.
The application also revealed that small businesses and individuals with development ideas considered the system to be bureaucratic and difficult to navigate. During the course of the project, however, the regional support actors addressed this problem by creating an “innovation council” comprising representatives of the project stakeholders. The idea was that the council would give small- and medium-sized firms and idea holders an opportunity to present their ideas to all the stakeholders at the same time. After the presentations, feedback and advice on which stakeholder was best suited for the idea were given. To test the system, 22 “test pilots” (primarily the smaller of the small and medium-sized firms) were chosen. All test pilots were given the opportunity to present their ideas to the council, and about 17 were granted support. The support consisted of tailored counselling and small-scale funding up to SEK 50.000 (USD 6.000). Besides the activities of the innovation council, a seminar programme for training small business owners and idea holders was held. Over half of the test pilots attended these seminars, which were arranged around themes like marketing and sales, product development, and intellectual property. The test pilots were also given the opportunity to participate in trade fairs and make study visits. The stakeholders have been satisfied with what has been achieved, and work is now underway to make the programme permanent. Most likely, the innovation council will be managed by the Regional Council in the future.
To sum up, we can say that the Innovative Growth project seems to have been beneficial, partly by addressing a troubling problem—the fragmented and poorly functioning innovation support system—and partly by succeeding in working up, testing, and implementing a solution to the identified problem. The data on which the case descriptions are based also contain follow-ups of the innovation pilots, and these indicated that also the target groups of firms were improving. The project succeeded in linking the stakeholders with each other, forcing them to interact more transparently, which resulted in clarifying their roles concerning the target groups. What is decisive for whether the programme can be considered successful is what happens in the future—long-term effects have not yet had a chance to appear. We also know that change work is challenging and that change management is necessary for the work to endure.