5 May 2023

It’s best when the project is only an incentive for more

#25yearsIBSR

How has Interreg supported SMEs in the region? Listen to Max Hogeforster from the Hanse Parliament who shares his memories and experience from 11 Interreg projects.

 
Anna Gałyga: How did your Interreg journey start?

In 2004, I was working as a lawyer in the US when I got the possibility to build the Hanse Parliament from scratch. I’ve always kept a special place for the Baltic Sea region in my heart since I travelled through the whole region in the early 90s. So, I took this opportunity and developed a project application for the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme.

I remember receiving a lot of support from the Secretariat in Rostock, which was very needed indeed. We were the only business support organisation among the other applicants, who mostly represented the public sector. Even though it was difficult to get our foot in the door, we ended up with an application, and later on, an approved B-SME project, with as many as 39 partners from 10 countries!

Although I wouldn’t do it again with that many project partners in one consortium, I must say that B-SME was a very successful project: the networks we created in the years 2004-2006 are still active today. It was the first EU project I managed and a very positive experience. I was very enthusiastic about the common willingness. Afterwards, I did many other projects with various EU funding programmes, like HORIZON or ERASMUS, but Interreg has remained my favourite one. This is mostly because of the clear vision and easy communication with the team at the Programme’s Secretariat. These people are very committed to the Baltic Sea region. The fact that many of them have been working there since the early years of the Programme speaks for itself.

Based on your experience, what benefits has Interreg brought to your work in business support?

Thanks to the Interreg projects, we brought tangible results for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Baltic Sea region for the past 20 years.

This would not have been possible without the Interreg support, as many chambers in the region are not that strong financially.

We created many solutions for SMEs to help them run their businesses better. We also created very strong structures that are still intact. For example, in 2009, we realised that SMEs are cut off from the academic world. So, we applied for a project called BSR QUICK and we managed to create the Baltic Sea Academy. The Academy brought universities and SMEs together. At that time, we started with seven universities in six countries in the region. Although this project ended in 2012, the Baltic Sea Academy is more active today than ever with 25 universities working together with SMEs on concrete Research & Development (R&D) tasks. This is something great to see – that a project works just as an incentive for something that grows after the project ends.

In 2006, we created a train-the-trainer programme for people working in business support organisations so they would be able to better support their regional SMEs. This programme is also still effective today. Thanks to Interreg, we also developed dual study programmes on the management of SMEs – it was a big thing as back then similar studies referred mostly to large enterprises. Today, the studies are still part of the curriculum at universities in Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and are attracting more and more students.

However, on a very personal note, one of my favourite Interreg results is a marriage between a Polish lady and a Norwegian man who met at one of our workshops in 2007… And they have been happily married since then.

Which projects are you proud of most?

I would like to mention the project Quick IGA, which stands for Innovative SMEs by Gender and Age. In this project, we established guidelines on how to increase the share of female entrepreneurship. Although the project ended in 2014, it is still very relevant today.

Another project is BSR QUICK, that allowed us to set up a lasting structure for the cooperation of SMEs, business intermediaries and universities, the Baltic Sea Academy.

I am also very happy about INBETS BSR which was about successors in companies. We worked on ways to motivate the young generations to consider taking over a running company instead of setting up a new one. This project was even nominated as the best practice on the European Commission’s website. And the topic we tackled is more relevant than before. I just read that the biggest threat for SMEs in Europe is the lack of successors. No wonder we still receive a lot of feedback from the project website and the tools; people keep downloading the guidelines and doing the assessments we created between 2017 and 2021.

What are your best memories related to Interreg after all those years?

My best memory goes back to 2007 when we had our final conference of the B-SME project in the Parliament Building in Copenhagen. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the former Prime Minister from Denmark, was present at the event and delivered a very motivating, passionate speech about the Baltic Sea region.

Looking at all our 89 participants from the project, I really felt that everyone was so committed to doing more for SMEs in the region. I felt that this final meeting of the project was only the start of a newly budding cooperation. And it was.

From a personal point of view, in the early days, there was a lot of travelling as we held workshops in every participating country. There was a moment when I felt that it was a bit too much. But during the pandemic, I realised how important networking in person and informal exchanges are. It was clear to me that personal meetings cannot be replaced with online meetings. And there’s so much trust in the network. I have no doubt that one of the reasons for this are the personal meetings made possible by Interreg.

Building personal relations would be a challenge without Interreg. What wouldn’t be possible?

I think we would miss three things without Interreg support. The most important part would be the lack of cooperation between SMEs from different regions and countries. Unlike universities, transnational cooperation is not very natural to small business support organisations or SMEs. It is difficult to mobilise SMEs to travel and connect with others. This is why our first projects revolved around matchmaking. Another missing aspect would have been the exchange between the business support organisations. The third one would have been the lack of cooperation between SMEs and universities. So, I really do feel this is well-spent EU money.

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Interreg”?

Baltic Sea region, absolutely. Long before I learned about many other great Interreg programmes, it was synonymous for me with the Baltic Sea region. Although we share the same values and are in the same European framework, we use different languages and have different cultures which is a very rewarding space to work in. Already at our first meetings in 2005, I said that the Baltic Sea region could be a model for others. It was nice when our region was chosen by the Commission and it received its own macro-regional strategy.

It is really about bringing the people in the Baltic Sea region together and doing something for the area to make it stronger. It is about creating solutions that work.

Is there anything that you would like to wish the Programme in the future?

You are doing an excellent job already! Although you are already doing this in project platforms, it might be useful to streamline the efforts of projects even more and enable them to connect as much as possible. I look forward to the next 25 years and beyond, filled with ground-breaking achievements, strengthened partnerships, and enduring legacies.  I am sure the guest list will be long, so I truly wish to be invited to the 50 anniversary.

#25yearsIBSR

This year, our Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme is celebrating its 25th anniversary. For more examples of #MadeWithIBSR project results and testimonials of great people who have helped shape the regions with us,  visit our birthday celebrations page!

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