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International network gives companies the advantage

02 Jun 2008

The Global Advantage programme is helping many companies gain traction in international markets. John Grabo from the University of Arizona, US, tells OLE how Tucson is benefiting from its participation.

John Grabo is Director of Marketing and International Programs at the University of Arizona's Office of Economic Development in Tucson, US. He directs an international outreach and strategic relationship programme that connects partner organizations and their cities' universities, business incubators, research parks and companies. Part of this role involves the Global Advantage programme.

What is Global Advantage?
The University of Arizona has a strong commitment to economic development in metropolitan Tucson and throughout the state of Arizona. My role is to coordinate international programmes that can leverage the university's participation in that economic development and strengthen the local region's economy.

Through the Global Advantage network we are building an accelerator, which puts our companies into high-value international markets with reliable partners that can strengthen their chances of success.

Global Advantage currently includes the cities of Tucson, Ottawa (Canada), Berlin (Germany) and Manchester (UK). We hope to develop Israel into a partner as well as Mexico. Ottawa is our first and longest-standing partner, where we have research collaborations, government alliances and economic development projects.

How do things work in practice?
We keep things streamlined and simple, since the distances involved can make management challenging. We have broadly defined plans and have identified the initiatives that we want to pursue. It could be marketing related, a sales and economic development mission from one city to another or engaging in specific events like the Berlin summer school for optics. We split the costs where practical.

In effect, Tucson has outposts in Ottawa, Berlin and Manchester. Similarly, our partners have an outpost in Tucson, providing fast access to US resources for the companies that need them. We're the accelerator for companies entering our markets and we try to put them on a fast track to success. That way we can develop a global network of cities where one city is reinforcing the other. Tucson is a strong optics city by itself, but aligning with Ottawa, Berlin and Manchester creates real power. There's strength in numbers and we gain the benefit of each others' networks.

How do the partner cities benefit?
Our programme has been very well received locally and is joint-ventured by Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO). Global Advantage allows us to grow the industry sectors where we have the most strength and competency, and ultimately we put dollars back into the economy. Successful companies breed successful employment and successful dollar flow through exports.

Tucson has around 1000 technology companies, mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). One aim of Global Advantage is to bring internationalization to our city. Our mindset and the mindset of SMEs has had to change in order to successfully access niche markets outside of the US. Our partner cities are looking at their own forms of internationalization, by helping their companies to access the US market.

Companies have a shared need to be truly global in scope. This is much easier to achieve when you have reliable and established partners, rather than spending a lot of money in complex environments and getting absolutely no traction.

Tucson intends to be an international business city. We've got to move our city on to the international stage, and we've been able to do that by linking with the other cities while also doing good science and building strong industry clusters. I hope that the other cities can say exactly the same.

How does the research community contribute to the programme?
The research universities in all of our partner regions are critically important. We rely heavily on the knowledge base that begins at the universities. The University of Arizona is a $535 bn research enterprise, and a substantial amount of research and patents come out of our optical sciences centre. That research is critical, not just for credibility but also because of the university's knowledge and many global interactions, which can be leveraged for economic benefit.

Speaking from the Tucson side, there has been absolutely no downside. We have made extraordinary linkages with research universities, with clusters, with economic development agencies and research parks.

How relevant is the solar market?
There is a good example between Berlin and Tucson with a company called Solon AG, which is headquartered in Berlin and is setting up production in Tucson. I expect it to be involved not just in any solar industry sector we build around them, but in our optics cluster as well. A Tucson-based company called Global Solar has also established itself in Berlin. There is the opportunity for Tucson and Berlin to develop a "solar pipeline" that could have great potential for other photonic technologies. Every city has multiple strengths, and this interdisciplinary nature is something we must leverage and exploit.

What commitments are required to ensure the success of the Global Advantage programme?
You must have two or three local champions who will stick with the notion of long-term sustained partnership. The elected officials, such as the local mayors, need to have the appetite for long-term co-operation. The university presidents are also in a position to support the long-term vision.

• This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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