Small firms see innovation as vehicle for sustainable growth

The SME Assembly presented the winners of the European Enterprise Promotion Awards

Photo: SME Assembly Haven Incubator CVBA-SO from Belgium, a safe port for young experimentation, took the trophy for promoting entrepreneurial spirit.

The SME Assembly, which is the core forum for small and medium-sized enterprises across Europe, this year was held from 25 to 27 November at the Scandic Marina Congress Centre, next to the gate of the Port of Helsinki. Hosted by the Finnish Presidency and the European Commission, it was a vibrant meeting point for hundreds of SMEs, policy makers, business associations, academia to discuss enterprise and debate on pressing issues concerning the small businesses, but also to get acquainted with the exciting and inspiring experience other companies already put on their record.

Kristin Schreiber, Director of SME Policy and the COSME Programme, DG GROW, European Commission, underlined that this year's Assembly was a chance to meet innovation-driven SMEs who look for sustainable ways to grow. She also underscored that together with them the Commission will work on the future European SME Strategy.

Enthusiastic about the commitments of the new EC President von der Leyen for reducing red tape for the SMEs and improving their access to the market, as well as her ambitious climate agenda, the participants had in-depth deliberations on Green Deal opportunities for SMEs in greener value chains. It was not a surprise that European small businesses view innovation as a vehicle for sustainable growth.

The debates also focus on rethinking employment and skills policy and mapping the jobs of the future, on dealing with bankruptcy and getting a second chance, on the women entrepreneurs, investment, access to finance, digital transformation, circular economy.

At the Assembly, the Commission presented its just published 2018/2019 annual report on European SMEs, which provides a snapshot on the size, structure and importance of these enterprises to the European economy. This year the analysis brings the good news that the SME sector in all EU countries expanded in terms of both employment and value added, which happens for the first time since 2008.

SMEs are slightly more than 25 million in the EU member countries, of them 93% are micro-SMEs. According to the report, SMEs accounted for 99.8% of all enterprises in the EU28 non-financial business sector and generated 56.4% of value added and 66.6% of employment in the sector.

Based on a spring 2019 forecast, EU SME value added is predicted to grow by 4.1% in 2019 and 4.2% in 2020, while EU SME employment is expected to grow by 1.6% in 2019 and 1.4% in 2020. However, the economic outlook has weakened since the forecast, so this growth may have to be revised downwards, the report shows.

Eurochambres Economic Survey 2020 findings were also presented during the forum. Deputy CEO of the association Ben Butters commented that the lack of skilled workers was among the main challenges that they identified. It was the same last year, but it seems to be even worse now. A lot of businesses cannot find people with skills that correspond with their needs. This is reducing the probability of job creation, which is worrying, he said.

The second big concern of businesses is export. There is a big fall in optimism about export sales and that means sales within the single market and outside the single market, outlined Ben Butters, adding that this figure has dropped very significantly in Germany and France. They are worried about the international trade situation, about barriers within the single market, Brexit is on the back of their minds as well. Overall, the situation is not a disaster, but it is not very positive either, he noted.

The stars of the event were undoubtedly the winners of the 2019 European Enterprise Promotion Awards (EEPA), an EC initiative which rewards entities promoting entrepreneurship and small business at national, regional and local level. The Grand Jury prize got GreenPAC iLab, an innovative hub created by two Dutch Universities, which provides help and access to a network of professionals, facilities and trainings increasing the young entrepreneurs' skills and knowledge.

Haven Incubator CVBA-SO from Belgium, which is a safe port for young experimentation, took the trophy for promoting entrepreneurial spirit. The prize in the category “Investing in entrepreneurial skills” went to Cyprus's IDEA Innovation Centre and Incubator that acts as an accelerator for startups. Fomento de la Contratacion Publica con Pymes from Spain was awarded for improving the business environment by promoting and facilitating the participation of SMEs in public sector contracts.

For improving the internationalisation of business, the jury distinguished HealthTech Nordic, Sweden, a community of over 230 Nordic startups offering digital healthcare solutions.

Greek TILOS was awarded in “Supporting the development of green markets and resource efficiency” for its initiative that helps island regions transition to new models of production and management of electricity.

Start-Up Your Future, from Germany, a pilot project that aims to help refugees in Berlin-Brandenburg to set up their own businesses, were the winners for responsible and inclusive entrepreneurship.

For the Executive Director of the National Company Industrial Zones, Antoaneta Bares from Bulgaria, it was the first participation at the SME Assembly. “I am glad that we were among the finalists of the prestigious European Enterprise Promotion Awards with our Fast Tracking Success initiative,” she said. The project focuses on accelerating the professional development of young university and vocational school graduates, by providing employment opportunities and internships in local and foreign companies operating in industrial zones, and has already achieved impressive results.

The participants headed home with many takeaways from the Assembly, and one of them was the phrase of Alvin Toffler, recalled by one of the discussants: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

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