Cluster initiatives can help connect businesses and other end users to new technologies, startups to new markets, and researchers to commercial partners.

This section offers guidance for stakeholders interested in starting a cluster initiative in their region. The cluster creation process is divided into three stages:

  1. Evaluating the region
  2. Engaging stakeholders
  3. Building an organization 

These pages are only intended as a starting point for cluster organizers. For more information on creating a successful cluster initiative, read our report on Building a Successful Technology Cluster on our resources page. To read about each step listed above, keep scrolling!

Step 1: Evaluating the Region

Since most successful cluster initiatives begin in regions where the targeted industry already has a strong presence, organizers should evaluate their regions before undertaking a cluster initiative.

The Clusters Program has identified several approaches that cluster organizers can use to help characterize their regions:

Ecosystem Mapping

Several cluster initiatives have mapped the “ecosystem” of an industry in their region. These ecosystem maps allow cluster initiatives to identify potential stakeholders by cataloging all the organizations in their industry, including businesses, universities and other research institutions, government agencies, utilities, and nonprofits.

Patent Mapping

Patent activity is an important measure of technological innovation. By searching for and mapping patents relevant to their industry, clusters can gauge how they compare to other regions and identify which organizations are driving innovation in their region.

Before a joint effort with the Small Business Administration to launch a water technology cluster in the Cincinnati, Ohio area, EPA commissioned a report mapping water, wastewater, and stormwater patents across the U.S.

Cataloging SBIR Awards

Under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, participating federal agencies must allocate 2.5% of their extramural R&D budgets to grants for businesses developing or commercializing new technologies. Cataloging relevant SBIR awards in the region can help cluster initiatives identify startups with innovative technologies in their region.

The Clusters Program maintains a database of SBIR awards for water technologies from 2006-2012 and SBIR awards for air technologies from 2008-2013. For more information, contact the Clusters Program.

The complete database of SBIR awards is available at SBIR.gov.

Identifying Federal Partners

Federal agencies with assets in the region and an interest in environmental technologies can be strong partners for cluster initiatives. Federal laboratories offer considerable research and development expertise, and often hold patents that can be commercialized under the Federal Technology Transfer Act.

Step 2: Engaging Stakeholders

Once the regional evaluation is complete, cluster initiatives can begin meeting with individual stakeholders with the eventual goal of convening a large group of interested stakeholders and securing a commitment to proceed with the initiative.

Recruit Prominent Leaders

If possible, fledgling cluster initiatives should recruit at least one or two prominent industry leaders before engaging other stakeholders. These industry leaders will already have extensive social contacts within the industry, and can lend respectability to the cluster initiative.

Ideally, one or more of these prominent leaders should be willing to serve as a champion for the initiative, a powerful advocate dedicated to promoting the cluster among stakeholders. These champions are important in stimulating interaction within the cluster, building social capital, and providing direction for the cluster initiative.

Meet with Stakeholders Individually

Cluster organizers should attempt to meet individually with as many stakeholders as possible. These meetings should be used to raise stakeholders’ awareness of the region’s potential as a cluster and gauge stakeholders’ interest in participating in a cluster initiative.

Networking is important at this stage. While ecosystem maps and other resources developed to evaluate the region are useful for identifying an initial group of stakeholders to contact, this initial group will be able to identify more potential stakeholders to contact.

Prioritize Key Stakeholders

Although a successful technology cluster relies on the interaction of stakeholders from all sectors, fledgling cluster initiatives will benefit disproportionately from the involvement of certain key stakeholder types.

  • Universities and other research institutions have considerable research and development capabilities. They often hold patents for new technologies, but need partners in order to commercialize them.
  • End users such as utilities and large companies hold considerable purchasing power. As potential markets, these organizations drive the commercialization of new technology.
  • Economic development agencies such as local chambers of commerce and business accelerators offer crucial business development expertise, and may have funds available for cluster initiatives or startups.
  • Regional politicians, whether at the state or local level, are vital partners in raising the profile of a cluster initiative.

Early-stage cluster initiatives should prioritize identifying and engaging these stakeholders.

Convene Interested Stakeholders

Once the individual stakeholder meetings are complete, fledgling cluster initiatives should convene interested stakeholders. The goal of this meeting should be to secure a commitment to proceed with the cluster initiative from a critical mass of stakeholders, and to identify a core group of stakeholders willing to formally organize the initiative.

 

Step 3: Building an Organization

Once cluster stakeholders have made a commitment to proceed, they must form a steering committee and develop an operating framework.

Form a Steering Committee

The early-stage cluster’s steering committee is responsible for drafting an operating framework for the cluster. The committee should consist of the cluster’s champions, active and engaged stakeholders, and at least one anchor company.

Anchor companies are both leaders in research and development in the field and significant suppliers and exporters. These companies act as role models for other businesses in the cluster. They contribute valuable knowledge of suppliers, distributors, and competitors in the industry, and can advise clusters on what technologies may be important in the future. Anchor companies often support clusters by donating executives’ time to cluster efforts.

Develop an Operating Framework

Once formed, the steering committee should develop an operating framework for the cluster. This document should set out objectives and outcomes for the cluster, establish an organizational structure, and propose an initial schedule of activities.

Outcomes and Objectives: The operating framework should establish the focus of the cluster initiative by outlining desired outcomes. These may include attracting or creating start-up companies, growing existing companies, bringing high-paying jobs to the region, developing the region’s reputation for innovation, and others.

The desired outcomes of the program will help determine how much the cluster organization should focus on activities such as networking, economic development, start-up incubation, advocacy, and investment promotion.

Organizational Structure: The operating framework should establish the structure and method of governance for the cluster organization. Often this includes a board of directors, an executive committee and staff, and operational subcommittees responsible for carrying out the specific activities of the cluster organization. The framework should identify responsibilities for each committee and outline how members will be selected.

Schedule of Activities: The operating framework should propose a timeline for forming committees and recruiting members. The framework should also identify potential early activities for the cluster organization, such as workshops, conferences, industry focus groups, and marketing activities.

Next Steps

When the operating framework is complete, cluster stakeholders should be reconvened to accept or modify the document. Once the framework has been accepted, the cluster organization can begin carrying out the activities proposed in the initial timeline.

At this stage, the stakeholders should determine how the organization will be funded and formally organized. Early-stage cluster organizations often shelter with a “host” organization (usually a support group or other nonprofit within the cluster) until they achieve financial security, at which point many incorporate as 501(c)3 organizations. Other models are available based on the cluster organization’s funding sources, however.