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Big Impact from Small Business Engagement: Knowledge Transfer Drives SME Innovation

In Germany, the Innovation Network for Sustainable SMEs (INaMi) facilitates collaboration between researchers, SMEs, and topical experts.

The Innovation Network for Sustainable SMEs (INaMi) devises innovative solutions to sustainability challenges. The network, run by the Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM), at Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, facilitates collaboration between researchers, SMEs, and topical experts. Andreas Schmitt-Sattelberg, Project Manager for INaMi, shares the network’s best practices for collaborative innovation:

INaMi Activities and Impacts

CSM launched INaMi in 2010, drawing on European Union funding for projects that stimulate economic growth through innovation incubation. INaMi offers three knowledge transfer activities:


INaMi convenes three workshops each year, intended to transmit academic knowledge to SME members. At the end of each workshop, members select the next workshop’s topic and INaMi staff plan content and presenters. Workshops are an effective way to share academic information and build relationships with SMEs. Workshop participants often then become more deeply engaged with INaMi through involvement in action groups (described below). INaMi has offered eight workshops since 2010, on topics including innovation management, sustainability marketing, audits and labeling, and pricing and distribution for sustainable products.

Action Groups

INaMi convenes action groups around very specific sustainability topics. INaMi identifies SMEs (both members and external SMEs), academics and industry experts, who collaborate to solve a particular challenge. The most recent action group, on the future of graveyards, seeks sustainable burial options for Germany. Participants include stonecutters, undertakers, priests, gardeners, marketers and academics working on applied social studies and fair trade stone. Academics help action groups by converting research into forms usable by SMEs, such as workshop presentations and e-learning tools.

Each action group results in implementation of a new innovation. These innovations include local availability of eco-friendly, fair trade gold; a public rent-a-bike system; and eco-friendly tourist accommodation.

New Research

Action groups also identify new research needs. Students may participate in the research, through Master’s research projects. Researchers share findings with industry partners through reports and presentations.

CSM is using its SME network to create sustainable business change through knowledge transfer.

Advice for Centres Wanting to Create Similar Impact

Andreas Schmitt-Sattelberg offers these recommendations:

  • Leverage action groups: Action groups produce significant, tangible outcomes for SME participants. Organizing action groups is labour-intensive: you must recruit participants, build relationships and manage administration. But the impact is worth the investment.

  • Work with a chamber of commerce: Chambers of commerce (or chambers of trade) have strong relationships with SMEs. They can help you identify important problem areas and SMEs that will contribute to action groups.

  • Avoid competition and address confidentiality: Avoid engaging competing companies on the same project, as competitive concerns may interfere with knowledge sharing. Discuss confidentiality concerns early on and set privacy expectations.

More Information

For more information on the Innovation Network for Sustainable SMEs, contact Andreas Schmitt-Sattelberg.

To learn more about CSM’s research on sustainable innovation in SMEs, contact Research Associate Erik Hansen or Centre Head Stefan Schaltegger.

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