Geographical proximity and the diffusion of knowledge
(The case of SME’s in biotechnology)
Delphine GALLAUD & André TORRE
UMR SAD-APT, INRA INAPG
16 rue Claude BERNARD
75231 PARIS Cedex 05
in Fuchs G., Shapira P. & Koch A. (eds), Rethinking Regional Innovation, Springer,
Since the principle that the capacity for innovation is a driving force in the growth of firms or
other productive systems has been acknowledged, public policies hold to the view that geographical
proximity plays a part in the process of the circulation of technology and knowledge, by fostering the
kind of face to face relationships needed to establish and maintain a common pool of knowledge. The
aim of this article is to question the relevance of these ideas, and enquiring as to whether geographical
proximity is really needed for the diffusion and exchange of knowledge. A body of literature (local
systems of production and externalities) considers permanent geographical proximity as a necessary
condition for the diffusion of knowledge (I) whereas the articles dealing with transmission channels
for externalities, show that geographical proximity only influences the innovative performance of
firms if there is effective interaction between the agents (II). We show that organisation is the first
modality in the transmission of knowledge, and that geographical proximity can be temporary,
particularly in the initial phases of the R&D processes. The smaller firms are then more acutely aware
to fulfil the need of de geographical proximity (III). This pattern, applied to plant biotechnology (IV),
reveals that SME’s related to the AFI and to agriculture are part of a less diversified and more local
innovation network than pharmaceutical SME’s and are more involved in frequent and repeated
contacts with the clients and the suppliers.
Key words : spatial interactions, geographical proximity, external knowledge, biotechnology,
spillovers, absorptive capacity, co-operation.
Since the principle that the capacity for innovation is a driving force in the growth of firms or
other productive systems has been acknowledged, public policies hold to the view that geographical
proximity plays a part in the process of the circulation of technology and knowledge, by fostering the
kind of face to face relationships needed to establish and maintain a common pool of knowledge about
companies or business concerns. It is therefore deemed necessary to encourage local interactions by
promoting the setting-up of networks or local systems of innovation (clusters, technopoles...) where
the circulation of knowledge is reinforced by the opportunity for frequent contacts, thanks to the
common location of the actors (Porter 2000).
The aim of this article, in the filiation of Rallet and Torre (2000), is to question the relevance
of these ideas, refusing all idealistic notions on the subject and enquiring as to whether geographical
proximity is really needed for the diffusion and exchange of knowledge. In particular, we will ask
ourselves about the spatial dimensions of technology interactions. The fundamental question we shall
raise concerns the relation between geographical proximity and the different modes of external
acquisition of technologies. More precisely, do firms need permanent geographical proximity in order
to acquire the technological knowledge they need to innovate? Can they do without this variable? Or
do they only need interactions mobilising geographical proximity more temporarily - that is only
during certain stages of the R&D and innovation process?
Firstly, we shall briefly present the studies that uphold the idea of the importance of permanent
geographical proximity in the diffusion of knowledge, regrouping of firms and spatial spillovers (I),
before analysing the process of the transmission of knowledge, firstly by assessing the absorptive
capacity of the firms (II), then by integrating the spatial dimension of the external acquisition of
technology (III). This will allow us to highlight the possibility of satisfying the needs for geographical
proximity through a temporary coming together of the actors of the innovation process. We will end
with an evaluation of the localised nature of innovation interactions in the field of biotechnology in
France, by comparing pharmaceutical activities to those related to agriculture and the agro-food
I. THE DIFFUSION OF KNOWLEDGE ON A LOCAL LEVEL :
THE CONTRIBUTION OF CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE
Even if the concept of proximity as such, is not always directly referred to, contemporary
literature regarding the transmission of knowledge in a spatial framework, continually alludes to this
notion. Although everyone agrees on the importance of geographical proximity in the process of the
diffusion of knowledge, the main aim of the systemic type of analyses is to highlight the real or
assumed qualities of groupings of technology firms, and to define the LIPS (Localised Innovation
Productive Systems) that hold the promise of a potential local technological development. A more
econometric approach, on the other hand, aims to investigate the role of proximity in the process of the
transmission of knowledge, based on the modeling of geographical externalities in regard to
innovation and technology.
In the eighties and nineties, the relation between geography and technology became the focus
of attention in regard to the institutional framework of the production of innovations, as differences
had appeared between countries or regions that had a comparable level of development but were
characterised by unequal innovation rhythms (Lung and al. 1999). Since then, research has been
dedicated to various subjects such as innovative milieux (Ratti and al. 1997, Crevoisier 2001),
technological districts (Antonelli 1986), technopoles or science parks (Monck and al. 1988, Longhi,
1999) and, in general, to localised systems of production and innovation (Lundvall 1992, Maskell and
Malmberg 1999), so as to highlight the complex connection between spatial concentration and
technological advantage, and then to reveal the organisational component underlying this type of local
operation. These different approaches have two common characteristics : they postulate the
effectiveness of local operations and highlight the importance of the organisational component. So it
is, that studies concerning innovative milieux have underscored the importance of connections
between the different local actors as regards the technological development of a given region or
geographical area, particularly when they have technology supplier-user type relations that can help to
reduce technology leakages and promote the implementation and development of local learning
opportunities. Research concerning technopoles, which is often of a less theoretical nature,
systematically attempts to highlight the advantages of grouping local high tech firms on the same
territory, especially in regard to the production of innovations, not only because of the concentration
of potential for research or innovation, but also because of the synergetic effects arising from the
collaboration between local firms. Most of these characteristics can be found in the analyses of
regional innovation systems, that include the setting-up of a local network based on technological
complementarities, as well as an institutional dimension illustrated by implementation policies
undertaken by the public authorities in terms of support to innovation or the training of engineers or
scientists, and where the relation between science and industry occupies a central position.
All in all, and as the most recent syntheses on innovation clusters have shown (Porter 2000),
the idea that firms and productive systems benefit from the spatial concentration of their research and
innovation activities, is widely accepted nowadays : permanent geographical proximity is seen as an
essential condition for technological success, particularly in the case of SME’s. Nevertheless, serious
doubts are now being voiced, as to the characteristics themselves, or even the merits, of the process of
spatial concentration that has been engaged in, particularly in regard to the ability to transfer
knowledge that is often termed as tacit knowledge, without cost and without any particular effort
(Rallet and Torre 2000)
Whereas this research takes it for granted that permanent geographical proximity plays a part
in the process of innovation and the transmission of knowledge, studies on geographical externalities
attempt to verify the role of this proximity in the transmission of knowledge by calculating the
maximum distance that a technological externality could cover.
One of the characteristics of innovation is to produce externalities. Due to the peculiar nature
of this activity, that is sometimes compared to the production of a (semi) public good, the results
cannot be totally appropriated by the innovator, as part of the knowledge is diffused into the economy
without the innovator being able to prevent it, or even being aware of it
. When innovation (or R&D)
is likened to information, there is an unlimited leakage of results that concerns the overall economy,
but the approach in terms of knowledge leads one to analyse the possibility of diffusing this
knowledge, as well as the geographical area it covers. From an empirical point of view, the fact that
there is a high concentration of innovative activities contradicts the hypothesis of a complete diffusion
of R&D results, which would allow activities to be equally distributed throughout the territory. The
over-concentration of innovative activities, which is even greater than the production activities
(Audretsch and Feldman, 1996), is then often accounted for by the characteristics of the externalities,
that are assumed to have a limited geographical extension.
Autant-Bernard and Massard (1999) have compiled four types of studies dedicated to
calculating the externalities of knowledge (or spillovers) and to their spatial area, respectively based
- the use of patents as markers of externalities (Jaffé and al. 1993) ;
- the geographical concentration of innovations (, Audretsch and Feldman 1996) ;
- geographical coincidence (Jaffé 1986, Anselin and al. 1997) ;
- local interaction (Anselin and al. 1997, Wallsten 2001) ;
to which one may add (Feldman 1999) :
- knowledge incorporated in capital or investment goods.
All these approaches come to the conclusion that externalities exist and that their geographical
extension is limited ; this explains the concentration of firms in certain areas and supports the idea that
geographical proximity is an important factor in the diffusion of knowledge. However, there are two
factors that limit the significance of this research : the measurement of the geographical extension is
still much debated, and the analysis of the channels of transmission of externalities modifies the role
of proximity. (Autant-Bernard et Massard 1999).
We only take in account the common sense of the definition of the externalities, often presented in the literature
on geography of innovation.
I.1. The measurement of geographical extension is still much debated
Some of the above-quoted studies do not really propose an estimation of spatial externalities :
the authors use a predefined geographical area, which presupposes, but does not prove the existence of
externalities. Thus, the first three methods (patents, concentration, coincidence) do not offer a true
measurement of externalities (no calculation of the elasticity of R&D expenditure in relation to the
innovation capacity of the company of reference) and even less of the distance they are supposed to
cover. Assuming that externalities exist, they model their effects and, in actual fact, they measure
agglomeration phenomena. These methods generally postulate the role of local dimensions by using
pre-defined geographical areas : States (Jaffé 1989, Feldman 1994), metropolitan areas (Jaffé and al.
1993) and Counties (Anselin and al. 1997 in their first evaluation). Notions of distance, when they are
introduced into the gravity and coverage indicators used by these authors, are pre-defined. For
instance, according to Anselin and al (second measurement), R&D may have been carried out within a
radius of 50 or 75 miles around the County of reference.
More recent studies, that make use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in order to
model the range of technology spillovers, provide an indication for measuring distance. Thus,
Wallsten (2001) makes use of GIS in order to analyse the probability for a firm whose neighbour
received government support for innovation, of also benefiting from such assistance. It locates firms
without using a pre-defined geographical zone and shows that firms receiving financial support are
situated close to each other, in a radius of one tenth of a mile, often on the periphery of urban areas.
Even if these are strategic externalities linked to information rather than R&D, and although
participating in a government programme is liable to introduce a different angle, one sees nevertheless,
that the distance retained, if it is not pre-defined, still varies noticeably from one author to another
(from 50 miles to one tenth of a mile), which leaves room for many extrapolations. Lastly, it is not
until the publication of Orlando’s work (2000) that these methods present a simultaneous calculation
of externalities and of distance.
I.2. The channels of transmission of externalities
Zucker and al. (1994) are the first to highlight the role of effective interaction in the diffusion
of knowledge, by showing that geographical proximity is not sufficient to enable one to benefit from
the externalities of technology, a finding also put forward by Cockburn and Henderson (1998), who
consider that externalities can only be received if firms stay in contact with scientists (especially by
co-authoring articles).Audretsch and Stephan (1996) continue in line with these studies, showing that
70 % of the contacts that are maintained between SME’s and scientists are not local but vary
according to the main tasks assigned to the scientists (transfer of knowledge, quality signal for
investors, participation in the scientific committee of SME’s). These results should be considered with
caution, as it is only the transfer of knowledge that is concerned in the analysis of innovation
Zucker and al (1998) measure the impact of relations with the most productive scientists (the
« star-scientists », thus defined by the number of articles published) and the innovation ouput of firms,
which is assessed by three indicators : the number of products being developed, the number of
products on the market and the net growth of employment, that all express the stages in the process of
innovation, from invention to economic performance (Autant-Bernard 1999). They conclude that only
the influence of researchers linked to firms by research cooperation has a significant impact on
innovation performance. It is therefore not enough for firms to be situated near the Universities, they
must also effectively cooperate with the local scientists in order to capture the externalities and
express them in terms of an increase in innovative results. Thus, the notion of interaction shows that
the effectiveness of geographical proximity is limited, as it involves a certain organisation of the said
Thus, the analysis of the process of transmission of knowledge externalities , leads us to
reconsider the supposed automatically positive role of geographical proximity, and to consider instead
the role of an effective cooperative type of interaction between SME’s and scientists. An
organisational constraint is added to the geographical factor, as the idea that firms could enjoy the
results of R&D without costs is replaced by the organisation of its dissemination. Moreover, the
definition of these externalities in itself, is problematic. If one considers that knowledge is in the very
air, then externalities can be apprehended without cost and geographical proximity is enough ;
knowledge becomes much less easily transferable on the other hand, when it is built into the human
capital. Geographical proximity alone, is then an insufficient guarantee, and the (expensive) diffusion
of knowledge will have to be organised. This is why it is necessary to investigate the actual interaction
between agents, particularly in regard to the external acquisition of technology, even if this requires
certain changes in the aforesaid definition of externalities and their content, in order to get into the
black box of technology interaction.
II. GEOGRAPHICAL PROXIMITY AND ABSORPTIVE
Any company that wishes to benefit from external technologies must rely on its relations with
agents who have that knowledge, whether they are markets for knowledge or more direct interactions.
However, if this operation is to be fruitful, the firm must have sufficient internal ability to assimilate
or reproduce this imported knowledge. Studies concerning the absorptive capacity of companies,
analyse how a receiving firm may pick up a greater or lesser quantity of technology spillovers, the
internal organisation of the said company enabling it to minimise its R&D investments in order to
absorb available knowledge from its environment. Cohen and Levinthal (1989) show that, besides
producing new information that can be used as input for innovation, R&D also facilitates the
assimilation of external knowledge.
Thus, the absorptive capacity of a firm corresponds to the amount of external knowledge that
it is able to use. This is a multiplying factor for sums invested in intra industrial R&D, and a stock of
extra-industrial knowledge (mostly made up of University research), that does not take into account
geographical distance ; only the technological distance between the transmitter and the receiver of the
externality is considered.
This work can be continued through research on the connection between the internal
characteristics of the firm and the type of external knowledge that is absorbed. Mangematin and Nesta
(1999) have shown that the possibility of absorbing external knowledge gives rise to three series of
specific problems :
- the distinction between applied and fundamental knowledge, that leads to the question of
what type of knowledge companies import, and highlights two aspects of the absorptive capacity,
respectively, research activities and development activities. This scientific skill enables one to discern
the advance of knowledge leading to technological opportunities, and to reduce the uncertainty
regarding the value of cooperation projects and of a technological component that would contribute to
the development of innovation and to its introduction on the market (Arora and Gambardella 1994).
Only a company that has a high absorptive capacity is in a position to absorb both types of
- the distinction between tacit and codified knowledge. Codified knowledge can be expressed
through the use of a code and « embedded » in a medium that is not dependant on the person who
possesses knowledge, whereas tacit knowledge cannot be expressed in a code or used by a third party
independently of the possessor of that knowledge. Even if we distinguish knowledge that is
predominantly tacit or predominantly codified, both forms of knowledge are complementary (Nonaka
1994), which is why firms invest in channels for the diffusion of knowledge that are more expensive
than simply reading scientific and/or technical articles. Thus, a high absorptive capacity, due to the
diversification of the means of access to knowledge, allows one to absorb codified and tacit
knowledge through a greater number of different channels. On the other hand, a reduced absorptive
capacity limits opportunities for cooperation ;
- the processes of recontextualisation. Knowledge is often generated in a particular context,
specific to the company, laboratory or productive system that it originated from (and which aims to
prevent this knowledge from leaking out). This specificity gives rise to some difficulty in the
appropriation of knowledge, as the lack of certain elements of information that would help to clarify it,
makes it difficult to use in a different context. The absorptive capacity of technology users must
therefore resort to a process of recontextualisation of technology spillovers (Guilhon 2000), that is
expensive and requires once again, specific absorption skills.
In view of these considerations, the potential complementary between internal and external
R&D (without internal R&D, it is impossible to use knowledge that one has not generated oneself)
brings us to the question of the role of external cooperation, an aspect that Cohen and Levinthal have
not studied in any detail. However, although they have not explicitly broached the subject of space,
their thesis is in opposition to the arguments promoting localised production and innovation systems
(technopoles in particular). Whereas the LIPS approach assumes that geographical proximity can
compensate for the shortcomings in the internal organisation of firms, particularly SME’s, the analysis
in terms of absorptive capacity, recommends that internal organisational abilities within the firm be
used for the assimilation of external knowledge, even if the latter originates from close neighbours.
Thus, whereas studies on the diffusion of knowledge at local level (whether it be the
geographical knowledge externalities or the LIPS) consider the geographical proximity of the actors as
the most important factor (although they relativise it sometimes), research on the absorptive capacity
of firms gives greater precedence to the internal organisational capabilities of firms, or to the
organisational proximity, as referred in the Economics of Proximity (Gilly and Torre 2000)
above all it makes it possible to raise the question concerning the stages of the innovation process
during which geographical proximity is necessary.
III : THE SPATIAL DIMENSION OF THE EXTERNAL
ACQUISITION OF TECHNOLOGY
Although they explicitly refer to an external acquisition of knowledge, Cohen and Levinthal’s
works hardly discuss the way in which this acquisition process takes place, and in particular the types
of interaction between firms. But these interactions are extremely important, as no firm possesses
internally all the knowledge it needs for its production process.
A firm that wishes to acquire external knowledge can get information made public through
conferences, trade fares, publications, symposia, exhibitions… but most knowledge it wishes to
acquire is private (or semi public) and can only be acquired from other firms or organisations. These
acquisitions range from commercial transactions (the markets of technology) to research cooperation.
The latter can be more or less formalised, whether it concerns the relations with public research
organisations (contracts between universities and industries) or with other enterprises (vertical
cooperation, that corresponds to the relations with clients or suppliers, and horizontal cooperation with
the competitors (a rare form which concerns less than 10% of R&D agreements)). In cases where
knowledge is public, geographical proximity has no impact because knowledge can be acquired
wherever the innovating firm is located in relation to the productive source of knowledge. Things are
different when the information is not divulged : it can be beneficial for the firm that seeks to acquire it
to be located in the proximity of the productive organisation, especially if it does not have a monopoly
on this information.
The different types of interactions made in order to obtain external knowledge can be
classified according to their relation to space and to the need for geographical proximity.
We define organisational proximity as the membership to the same group of economic entities, linked with
- informal relations for the exchange of technological knowledge : these require a
permanent and high level of geographical proximity, because of the tacit and
contextualised nature of the knowledge in question, and the need to continually validate
and enrich this knowledge ;
- research collaboration : the joint accumulation of knowledge is facilitated by a relation
of geographical proximity ;
- exchange of researchers : geographical proximity is required in the case of an exchange
of tacit knowledge, but can be obtained by temporarily importing a skill ;
- purchase of patents and licences : it is useful to distinguish between licence agreements
that do not provide any technical assistance and those that do. The former represent a spot
transaction on the knowledge market : geographical proximity does not exist. Where the
licence agreement does make provision for technical assistance, the patentee must
organise the transmission of technical know-how defined within the field of the patent,
which implies the transmission of both the codified and tacit knowledge needed for the
industrial utilisation of the invention. Geographical proximity facilitates the transmission
of this knowledge, and also lowers the costs involved, particularly when the agreement
provides that the patentee shall personally undertake the start-up of production and
training sessions for the licensee’s staff. (Gaudin 1993) ;
- Industry-University research contracts : when the content of this research is tacit it
requires geographical proximity, particularly in the urban areas or within specific
geographical zones (Grossetti and Nguyen 2001). However, as soon as the results are
acquired and presented in a codified form, the need for geographical proximity
- vertical or horizontal cooperation : although geographical proximity is frequent in client-
supplier relations, its role in horizontal cooperation is not that obvious. Here too,
temporality is significant, as there are temporary moments where proximity is necessary.
In the case of relations involving competing companies, it is advisable to try and obtain
organisational proximity at a distance in order to retain access to local markets.
The process of acquisition of external competencies in its spatial dimension may be described
as follows. When a technical object or a technology are introduced, it is essential to implement a
decoding and/or recontextualisation phase (or even a decontextualisation phase in the case of an
imitation procedure) with the help of the absorptive capacity of the firm. The purchase of external
technologies on the markets for knowledge is a point in case. But this also holds true for other types of
interactions, and particularly for relations of a cooperative nature ; meetings between people must take
place, in order to decodify or to decontextualise knowledge and to establish protocols for the
distribution of tasks between the participants in the operation, whether they are people inside the firm
or outside contributors or newly arrived on the scene. Cooperative relationships often require
geographical proximity, even if it is temporary, because of the frequency and the intensity of the
interactions that we have just noted. The following phase of internal recodification or
recontextualisation requires a lesser degree of geographical proximity in the relationships within the
network, as it involves a considerable amount of exchanges of codified knowledge within the
company and an integration of the absorptive capacity of the latter. The type of learning referred to is
mostly internal, and the starting-up of the production process relies extensively on codified
knowledge, which becomes the major element in the process, as external support and contributions can
be realised by means of long distance communication.
It is possible to specify the needs for geographical proximity in the particular case of
cooperation which was studied byveque et al (1996) who analysed the link between the forms of
internal organization of R&D and the types of external cooperation. This study proposes three main
archetypes that, in the case of firms, correspond to an equal number of R&D forms
: they are
- the exploration of ways to implement an enduring technical transformation, by seeking to
acquire new knowledge and finding out how to use it in the innovative process. Exploration R&D,
which allows new knowledge to be produced and internalised, generates cooperation that in turn
increases learning opportunities. The high level of uncertainty attendant on this activity is matched by
the large number of agreements entered into with partners (especially scientists) who are in a position
to generate new knowledge;
- the exploitation of a relatively well-known innovation technique. R&D exploitation is the
expression of a routine way to produce innovation. Cooperation, that includes a higher proportion of
agreements between clients and suppliers than exploration R&D, occurs when both parties seek to
develop identical skills but the products and the markets are complementary ;
- the imitation of innovative processes initiated by competing firms. Imitation R&D, that
requires rapidity and flexibility, is generally completely internalised.
The number of external relations drops with the shift from exploration (that can be distributed
between several sites) to exploitation (characterised by the use of relatively commonplace sources of
external technology) and then to imitation (a situation in which external models are reproduced, often
because the firm does not have the internal skills needed to produce innovation).
This pattern, which enables us to connect the internal organization of R&D (and hence its
absorptive capacity) to a certain type of external relations, applies for the most part to differentiated
oligopolies, in other words, to relatively big firms. It has to be amended by taking into consideration
the size of the firms. SME’s for instance, trapped between their innovation rationale and the
insufficiency of their own skills in regard to the creation of technology, are not in a position to so
easily develop certain modalities of internal R&D.
Based on these considerations, and taking into account the fact that organisational proximity is
consubstantially necessary for the overall process of acquiring external knowledge, the relation
between the different types of R&D and geographical proximity (defined as the opportunity for
frequent face to face meetings between agents, according to Lung and al. 1997 and Rallet and Torre
2000) can be defined as follows (see Table I) :
Process of exploration R&D Permanent geographical proximity
Process of exploitation R&D Temporary geographical proximity
Process of imitation R&D Secondary geographical proximity
Table I: Temporary and permanent geographical proximity
in technological co-operation processes
In this instance, the term ‘permanent or temporary geographical proximity’ applies to the
process, and must on no account be confused with the location of firms, which differs according to
their size. It means that there exists a need for geographical proximity that can be met through a
temporary coming together of the actors of the cooperation process.
Put very simply, big firms, subsidiary groups or Universities, can avoid the constraint of a
permanent location in the initial phase of exploration by using devices such as sending out research
teams or doctors, a solution that is allowed because of they have such a large pool of human resources
Dans la réalité peu de firmes n’utilisent qu’une de ces formes et peuvent passer de l’une à l’autre en fonction de
la période considérée et selon les types de concurrence auxquelles elles se trouvent confrontées.
to draw from. In smaller firms, on the other hand, the coincidence of the need for an exploration R&D
with the need for permanent geographical proximity during this process, is often a factor that
determines the locality of the firm, as tasks related to the different phases of the R&D process are
assigned to the same person. So these firms have to be located close to other firms or laboratories,
even if geographical proximity is only needed during one of the phases of the R&D process.
Geographical proximity and the location of firms should on no account be assimilated, as the existence
of permanent geographical proximity during the exploration R&D process does not in any way require
the company to be located nearby, except in the case of smaller companies, where permanent
geographical proximity does entail this kind of constraint in terms of their location.
Finally, it should be noted that the role of geographical proximity, of greater or lesser import
according to the phases and types of innovation project involved, decreases over a period of time.
Geographical proximity can be either :
- permanent and complementary to organizational proximity during the phase of the joint
production of fundamental, tacit and contextual knowledge ;
- temporary and complementary to organizational proximity during the phase of the absorption
of knowledge developed during the scientific phase, which means that this knowledge must be
recontextualised in order to test it in various situations ;
- totally dominated by organizational proximity, as in the case of coordination at a distance,
which does not require face to face interactions. This is often the case during the development phases
of prototypes and clinical trials, or when the findings of research are being codified ;
Thus, the thesis according to which the need for geographical proximity in the process of
external acquisition of knowledge leads to a co-localisation of firms or organisations in one same area
proves erroneous. Indeed, the great number of modes of external acquisition allows firms to obtain
techniques or knowledge even if they are not localised in the proximity of the enterprise or laboratory
that has produced them. The more commercial interactions are, the less necessary geographical
proximity becomes. On the other hand, the closer one gets to cooperation, the more important it
becomes. However, the need for geographical proximity can be met in a temporary manner through
the mobility of qualified staff, in particular by organisations that possess the necessary resources to
carry out this type of operations.
IV. EXTERNAL ACQUISITION OF KNOWLEDGE AND
PROXIMITY IN THE FIELD OF BIOTECHNOLOGY.
The agricultural food-processing industry has undergone major changes over the last thirty
years, and in particular, there has been a complete reversal of France’s position, which has shifted
from being an importer to being an exporter. The AFI now contributes overwhelmingly to the positive
trade balance, following the modernisation and extension of farms, the rapid increase in the output, the
intensification of breeding, etc… these factors generate productivity gains that are reflected in
profound institutional modifications. Today, thanks to the boost in France’s international trade, it has
become the second country in the world after the USA, with a competitivity based on several strong
points : food grains, sugar, dairy products, wine and beverages. However, although the growth in these
activities has been extremely significant, the AFI still comes last in the field of research. In France,
due to the lack of researchers and of funds available for R&D, relatively little research has been
carried out in the private sector (1% of the GDP) ; moreover, the level of research in the private sector
differs considerably according to the type of company concerned. Thus, big groups in the agricultural
food-processing industry enjoy many R&D activities (often organised worldwide), and this is also the
case for about 300 French SME’s. Most of the small companies, on the other hand, do not have formal
access to R&D, and, in the best of cases, they make use of transfer centres or intermediation
institutions. Public research plays an important part in this context, and the INRA in particular, has a
pivotal role, as contracts passed between firms and public laboratories are often presented as a
substitute for the lack of internal R&D.
Several explanations can be given in order to resolve this apparent paradox :
- the dynamics of this sector is not based on innovations, or only incremental ones;
- this situation arises because of knowledge and know-how that are already present, but have
not been fully exploited and that, as soon as they are used, become engines of productivity;
- agronomic innovations are not linked to research in this sector ; this explanation substantiates
the hypothesis of a diffusion arising from other industries. Joly and Lemarié (2000) note that Pavitt
(1984) classifies the AFI in the category of industries where innovation is almost entirely due to
technical progress that has been built into the capital goods purchased by them, and very little to their
- lastly, the social return on research is particularly high in the fields of agriculture and the
food trade. Huffman and Evenson (1993) show that the impact of research is particularly significant in
the AFI, more for agriculture than for breeding and more for scientific research than for applied
research. This result justifies the many studies carried out in the seed sector, because genetic
engineering and improvements represent an important area of innovation and contribute massively to
the increased yield of the large-scale farming industry.
Biotechnologies are defined as a number of techniques and knowledge related to the use of the
living in the industrial processes of production (Ducos and Joly 1988). This is not enough to define a
sector (Porter 1990) even though certain firms have specialised in these activities. These techniques
are used in the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, the agro-food industry and the environment (they
are still in the experimental stage in the latter case). In France, an economic environment is emerging
that constitutes a production sector composed of biotechnology firms and firms offering
complementary activities: manufacturing of specific instruments and equipment, consulting and
technical expertise (Lhuillery 2002).
Chemical firms remain the main suppliers of innovation in the agro-food industry. It is the
case, in particular, of the production of flavourings - additives produced by a few firms in the agro-
food industry, but essentially manufactured by the chemical industry. There are currently about one
hundred flavourings obtained thanks to biotechnologies. This activity is therefore still developing.
The market is not much internationalised and SMEs as well as groups are present on the market.
Whereas pharmaceutical and chemical firms produce techniques related to biotechnologies,
agricultural and agro-food firms are essentially users. The market is internationalised in the chemical
and pharmaceutical industries (there is world oligopoly), but a few SMEs have specialised in specific
products. However, in the long term, one can wonder if they will be able to maintain these activities.
These firms have to innovate constantly in order to create markets on which they obtain a temporary
Lemarie et al (2001) have highlighted the specific characteristics of these companies as far as
France is concerned :
- very few of them operate on final consumer markets ; they are mostly suppliers for other
enterprises, whether in the field of health or of the AFI. Their main business is to design, develop and
manufacture custom-made genetic or biological material. The main business of SME’s of the AFI (a
third of the sample) is the perfecting of diagnostic kits in order to determine, for instance, if GMO are
present- most of them are situated in the Ile de France, a region that specialises in pharmacology, as
well as in five other regions: Alsace, Auvergne, Aquitaine, Brittany (regions that specialise in the AFI)
and Rhône-Alpes (a region that specialises in pharmacology) ;
- their development is related to different models of cooperation networks. Companies with a
fast growth rate (a minority, mostly involved in pharmacology) have a dense network of cooperation
with Universities and public research organisations. Geographical proximity has very little relevance
for these firms, that are used to recruiting skills through their international scientific network and who
therefore favour organisational proximity. Lastly, firms with a parent company include mainly SME’s
connected to agricultural markets, that have been created by groups with a view to flexibility and
decreased risks, and that are situated near the customers.
Catherine et al. (2002) also highlight the recourse to local networks, by connecting their
development to the founders’ profile. Companies are usually established in the area where its founders
had already worked previously, particularly in the case of scientists, which would seem to indicate that
this human capital is more specific and less transferable than the capital of the managers. Thus,
successful SME’s combine local skills (particularly in the scientific field) and global skills (mostly in
the managerial field).
Thus, we can distinguish (Catherine and Corolleur, 2001) two main types of companies :
- firms with a low level of technological complexity and small exploitation and imitation R&D
budgets, that lead to incremental innovations, and rely on internal skills that stem from the core
business of the firm. These SME’s, that make up 2/3 of the total number of SME’s and whose outlets
are mainly in the AFI and agriculture sectors, are often suppliers for big groups and operate on
markets with a narrow niche. They have an essentially local network, and rely on funding within a
demarcated geographical area. They can either be classified as service providers or as manufacturers
of generic products as the case may be, and these activities enable them to rapidly become operational
and to make a considerable profit ;
- firms that have a higher level of technological complexity and a big volume of exploratory
R&D, whether they are leaders on their market and make radical innovations, or research providers.
These companies, with outlets mainly in the pharmacology sector, take on the risks and uncertainty of
programmes that big groups consider too risky, and they look for wider markets. They can combine
purchases of licenses that imply a very limited geographical proximity, with means such as co-
developments in partnership which necessitate greater geographical proximity
Cooperation between SME’s linked with agricultural outlets that tend to practise exploitation
R&D, is often a customer-supplier type relationship (Léveque and al. 1996) that requires ties of
geographical proximity, (Cf. III, below), particularly in the initial phases of research and development.
Nevertheless, the modalities of cooperation in R&D are liable to change over time due to the influence
of the dynamics of competition. The initial phases of the innovation process require extensive
application to external collaboration, or even joint contracts in order to carry out the exploratory R&D,
the number and variety of contracts decreasing at a later stage, and becoming more like the supplier-
customer types of cooperation (Léveque and al. 1996). The theory suggesting that networks are more
extensive and diversified in pharmacology than for SME’s connected to agriculture and the AFI, has to
be relativised, because they all generally go through a phase of exploratory R&D when they enter the
The information (very scarce) about SME’s in this sector, shows that big integrated networks
(Depret and Hamdouch 2000), that include different organisations and are developed by big groups
from the pharmaceutical industry, often create a plant biotechnology sector outside of their core
business. This is the case for Aventis, for example. It is important not to confuse these networks with
the networks formed by SME’s, that have specificities in terms of their objectives and/or constraints
(survival through access to the network, for instance) and are more motivated to create an area of
expertise (specific skills) for themselves (and thus to develop a strategy of niches).
The strategy of the groups leads one to believe that a certain number of techniques, initially
perfected in pharmacology, can then be transferred to the AFI. But the gap between the results of
research and the market, is more significant in the case of plant biotechnology than for biotechnology
in the pharmacology sector, that is almost continually linked to the advance in fundamental research.
Whereas pharmacology is marked by a series of discoveries converted as quickly as possible into
innovations, plant biotechnology is often characterised by a lesser volume of scientific discoveries and
a slower renewal of skills. Moreover, as these techniques are generally relatively older, the life cycle
of the industry can more frequently correspond to the phase of exploitation R&D, where the
agreements are less in number, involving extensive sub-contractual relations, the aim of which is to
reduce the cost of developing innovations. Consequently, the recourse to scientific cooperation could
be more selective and be used as a means to complete the data base of the SME on certain specific
issues, in order to carry out a particular project instead of maintaining a diversified absorptive
capacity. The interactions mobilised within this framework would then only require a temporary
geographical proximity, that has however, proved fatal to SME’s in terms of locality.
What is the role of geographical proximity in setting-up and operating of external acquisition
of technology? Is it fundamental, as public policies that favour the interaction between science and
industry at local level in the hope of obtaining a better circulation of knowledge, seem to imply ? Our
article shows that a body of literature (local systems of production and externalities) considers
permanent geographical proximity as a necessary condition for the diffusion of knowledge (I) whereas
the articles dealing with transmission channels for externalities, show that geographical proximity only
influences the innovative performance of firms if there is effective interaction between the agents (II).
In order to benefit from externalities, firms have to make costly efforts of organisation.
Our research is based on the hypothesis that organisation is the first modality in the
transmission of knowledge, and that geographical proximity can be temporary, particularly in the
initial phases of the R&D processes. The smaller firms are then more acutely aware to fulfil the need
of de geographical proximity (III). This pattern, applied to plant biotechnology (IV), reveals that
SME’s related to the AFI and to agriculture are part of a less diversified and more local innovation
network than pharmaceutical SME’s and are more involved in frequent and repeated contacts with the
clients and the suppliers. The localised nature of their technological interactions can be explained by
different variables, but not by a need for permanent geographical proximity in the process of
knowledge circulation. It stems more from the lack of human abilities and financial means, that forces
them to choose a close to companies and laboratories, which are a source of knowledge, in the hope of
benefiting from the transmission of knowledge that, however, only concerns short term projects.
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