Ten years of research in microentrepreneurship

Over ten years, the Microentrepreneurship Centre of Excellence MicroENTRE ®, which operates at the University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute, has evolved from a one-off regional development project into a national and international producer of new research evidence and promoter of microentrepreneurship competences. After the busy first decade, this is a good time to reflect on the past and go back slightly in time to the beginning of the story.
Ihmisiä pöytien äärellä keskustelemassa mikroyrittäjien MikroMatch-tapahtumassa

Kerttu Saalasti Institute (previously called Oulu Southern Institute) had already touched upon the themes of entrepreneurship in its activities in the early years of the new millennium, for example in various projects and education pilots. Around the same time, the need for promoting and supporting entrepreneurship more strongly had increasingly come up in discussions with regional stakeholders. In 2005, the Institute also carried out a preliminary study on needs for entrepreneurship education in Southern Oulu region. Kauhava Entrepreneurship School (University of Applied Sciences) and the Small Entrepreneurship Centre in Mikkeli, which were still operating at that time, were regarded as good examples of education and development actors that had positive impacts on business life in their regions. Consequently, we also hoped to promote entrepreneurship in a similar manner in southern parts of North Ostrobothnia.

A need for microentrepreneurship research identified in a report

In 2011, the Institute was starting a new chapter as the previous regional development project (developing the innovation environment in Oulu Southern Region) was about to be wrapped up. What would the Institute's small regional development project team tackle next? Which new activities could serve the region and the University of Oulu best? A few years earlier Professor Jorma Rantanen, a rapporteur appointed by the Council of Oulu Region and the Regional Council of Central Ostrobothnia, had produced a report on developing the higher education structure and cooperation in Central Ostrobothnia, Oulu Southern Region and Pietarsaari area. The project team decided to take a closer look at the key results of this report. The report had not gathered too much dust in a few years, as the Institute had also played a key role in producing it.
The rapporteur had proposed microentrepreneurship as the direction for regional development. Development work focusing on research, education and expert activities related to the operation and operating preconditions of micro-enterprises and the organisation of a regional development centre to carry out this work would be highly suited for this area dominated by micro-enterprises. Among other things, the report noted that there had been little or no research globally in micro-enterprises, other than in terms of economic variables. The rapporteur found that research in micro-enterprises could be generic, making it possible to use the results in any sector. The region could also strive for national leadership in research and development related to micro-enterprises.

Research launched with regional development project funding

The Institute knew that micro-enterprises account for almost 95% of all companies in Europe, and that they are of major significance for both the national economy and employment. Nevertheless, micro-enterprises were not featured as a separate category in most official statistics and key studies. As a response to this identified need, an ERDF project was launched (MicroY. Microentrepreneurship research and RDI development in Oulu Southern Region). The project began by recruiting a research director and launching the activities of a research group focusing on the unique research theme of micro-enterprises and their operating environment. From the outset, the activities were driven by enthusiasm and based on applied, multidisciplinary research as well as close cooperation with micro-enterprises, public business services and other RDI actors.

The microentrepreneurship research team has worked with an entrepreneurial spirit, as the continuity and development of its activities have depended on external project funding and sale of services. Built on the foundation laid by the initial project, the activities were put on a permanent footing and expanded operationally and geographically with the help of new projects and financial instruments (including ESF, ERDF, EAFRD, TEKES, Leader, Interreg, Northern Periphery and Arctic, Karelia CBC, studies ordered by customers). Close cooperation with companies and business service organisations has been central to the activities. Through productive interaction, we have identified topical needs for new information and operating models and striven to put them to practice in an agile and entrepreneurial manner. As demonstrated by our continuity and long partnerships, financiers and partners have found our activities effective. MicroENTRE worked together with more than 400 companies and other organisations in 2020. Goal-oriented efforts have been made to increase international cooperation, for example through scientific publications and project cooperation.

From regional activities to a national mission

Currently, MicroENTRE employs almost 20 specialists focusing on research and education related to micro-enterprises, about one half of whom have a doctoral degree. Entrepreneurship is a complex societal phenomenon, and the research group takes a multidisciplinary approach in order to understand it. The specialists’ backgrounds are in such fields as economics, manufacturing, geography, educational science (entrepreneurship education), law and health science. The number and quality of the Institute’s publications have increased annually to comprise more than 60 peer-reviewed scientific articles and dozens of conference papers and other publications. Currently, the group is working on 19 supplementary funding projects (a project portfolio of approx. EUR 3.3 million). The project partners and funding providers include almost 30 municipalities or municipal business development companies around the country.

To reflect the versatility of its activities, the research group has taken on the name Microentrepreneurship Centre of Excellence MicroENTRE. The MicroENTRE® trademark was registered in 2019. The research and development work of MicroENTRE was a strong argument for the Ministry of Education and Culture’s decision to assign the national mission of microentrepreneurship research and education to the University of Oulu. MicroENTRE as part of Kerttu Saalasti Institute will fulfil this mission from 2021 onwards.

To find out more about the back story and work of MicroENTRE, join us at the Kerttu Saalasti seminar on Monday, 20 September. The event’s theme is ‘A boost for growth from microentrepreneurship – improving operating conditions through research evidence’. The seminar will take you through the shared story of MicroENTRE and entrepreneurs, present the new Kerttu Saalasti award to a promoter of microentrepreneurship, and launch the new statistical report on microentrepreneurship. The speakers will include Antti Kurvinen, Minister of Science and Culture, and Mika Kuismanen, Chief Economist at the Federation of Finnish Enterprises, who will discuss micro-enterprises as drivers of growth. We would like to extend a warm welcome to you, whether you come in person or participate remotely!

Martti Saarela, Development Manager, and Anna-Mari Simunaniemi, Research Director
Microentrepreneurship Centre of Excellence MicroENTRE, University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute