The ‘triple helix’ model describes a system of close co-operation between academia, the business community and local government, initially conceived to drive regional development. It is all about universities creating knowledge and a well-educated workforce, businesses commercialising these ideas and governments creating ideal conditions via the regulatory framework and fiscal and financial support. While this is known as triple helix in academic circles, the business community usually refers to it in terms of ‘clusters’, and model that is as useful for regional development as it is for creating attractive foreign direct investment (FDI) locations.

One example of a functioning triple-helix ecosystem — and it probably is best to think of it as an ecosystem — is the technical university TUM in Munich, Germany. Attached to it are several institutes of the Max Planck Society (the German structure for fundamental research), as well as Fraunhofer institutes (the structure for applied research). The state has invested more than €1bn, while the Klatten family (the ones behind BMW) have, together with TUM, created UnternehmerTUM, a start-up incubator that has successfully supported more than 50 companies in the region. This ecosystem is clearly also furthering FDI attraction, as is illustrated by Munich’s success as a FDI location, with Google, SAP and Apple all setting up shop in the vicinity. 

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Another prime example is the Cambridge high-tech cluster, with the non-profit development agency Cambridge& as its shop window, focussing on life sciences and healthcare, and tech and advanced manufacturing. The ecosystem emerged in the 1960s, partly based on the idea to “put the brains of Cambridge University at the disposal of industry”. It has subsequently grown into one of the most successful ecosystems. The university is a significant “knowledge engine” and provider of talent, while supportive structures are not only conceived as local government, but a wider community, including not-for-profit membership organisations (such as Cambridge Ahead, looking into barriers to good sustainable growth, like affordable housing).

Over and above the traditional triple helix model, Cambridge is placing great emphasis on investment through a strong angel investor and venture capital ecosystem, as well as space and infrastructure through its world-class campuses and science parks.

The list of successful triple helix examples in fact is long: Kista, the tech-unicorn city outside of Stockholm; Twente in the Netherlands; and Waterloo in Canada are just a few. The important point is that not all triple-helix systems look the same. Much like in investment promotion, it is not blindly chasing a template, but built on the city or regions’ own strengths.

Martin Kaspar is head of business development at a German mittelstand company in the automotive industry.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.