Physics world. Small- and medium-sized enterprises make good partners for neutron sources and other major research facilities, yet the barriers to entering this market can be high. Nikolaj Zangenberg and Søren Bang Korsholm offer advice on how to overcome them.

Governments all over the world are investing significant amounts of money in national and international research facilities. As they do so, more companies are becoming aware that the construction, maintenance and operation of facilities such as CERN, ITER and the European Spallation Source (ESS) present significant new market opportunities. In fact, facilities and companies both stand to gain from increased interactions. On the scientific side, technological cross-fertilization from other industries or facilities means that research centres get better (and often cheaper) solutions. Meanwhile, benefits to companies include a broader customer base and, over time, the opportunity to take solutions developed for so-called “big science” and apply them in other markets.

Overcoming the barriers

Order volumes in the big-science market range from small manufacturing contracts to huge frameworks worth up to hundreds of millions of euros. However, most orders are small and for specialized or bespoke components. This makes big science especially well-suited for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). However, for many SMEs, doing business with big-science facilities presents practical, economic and psychological barriers. One example of a practical barrier is procurement regulations. Many facilities are international, inter-governmental organizations, and their procurement rules incorporate the principle of “fair return”, in which member states are, as far as possible, given contracts in proportion to how much they contribute to the organization. This may present opportunities for individual companies, but it also adds complexity, with special tendering provisions and rules that differ from one big-science organization to another.

Another barrier for new companies is that although the big-science market is innovative and advanced in terms of technology, it can be remarkably conservative in its procedures and practices. References and other personal connections are important in securing business, but for a new entrant, establishing these relationships can be challenging.

In 2010 our institutions (the Danish Technological Institute and the Technical University of Denmark) established a joint initiative, with support from the Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education, to help Danish companies become aware of the big-science market and to encourage them to consider entering it. The lessons learned in this “BigScience.dk” initiative have now been documented in a report (goo.gl/Mja826). The report gathers best practices and makes recommendations that big-science organizations can discuss, test and potentially implement if they wish to broaden their supplier base and improve how they interact with existing and prospective industrial suppliers. However, because each organization is different, the specific practices that constitute challenges to suppliers (new or existing) vary. Hence, there is not one single answer or “model” organization, but rather several areas where big-science organizations may choose to focus their efforts. In some cases, the statutes of an organization may prevent changes, but most of the proposed improvements can be implemented, if prioritized. Read the full article here.