You have coming from the business sector to being a director of a European body. What was your first impression when taking this job?
My first impression is extremely good. In the past few days I have mostly dealt with the European Commission and specifically with the team that is supporting, and that has actually shaped – together with the governing board – the EIT. I also familiarised myself with the Directorate General for the Education at the Commission, and I am very impressed by the quality of the people and the results that have been achieved.
So I recognize that it is a large organization but I also come from a large organization on the business side, and what I have seen again is an approach that is pragmatic, that is about learning by doing and that is really geared at delivering concrete results.
It is not about saving the world, but the EIT is clearly a kind of experiment on how to better link the science community and education community together with business and commercial deployment. It is therefore an original concept.
The main product of the EIT – if you want to say that the EIT is a business run enterprise – is the Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), and the KIC is differentiated by a number of concrete attributes. It is an independent entity: it will have a business plan; it will have a CEO, so it’s something which is practical, and very clearly links commercial interests with science and education.
A lot of work has been put into that concept and the outcome is something which is very concrete. I am impressed by the originality of the concept of the KIC and the fact that the concept has been actually transformed into an experiment, and that it is going to happen.
This is your second time in Hungary. What are your impressions of the working environment and the cooperation of the Hungarian authorities?
We visited the building [the EIT offices in Budapest]. I have been extremely impressed by the location, the quality of the building and by the very supportive and friendly atmosphere that came from the Hungarian authorities and Dr Ilona Vass and Dr Gábor Magyar [from the Prime Minister's Office]. I really felt that there was a very strong sense of teamwork and people working together towards the same goal, which is – the implementation of a European Institute of Innovation and Technology, so of an institute of European nature, based in Hungary.
There is strong teamwork between the European Commission Representative and the Hungarian authorities, and I could see very much this kind of dual aspect of “yes, this is an important European institute that will be based in Hungary”. They seemingly are working for the same mission: to create European jobs through innovation.
I understand that there has also been extremely good teamwork on the operational side: good cooperation between the people working for the Hungarian authorities, the architect, the people doing the IT, the builder itself and European Commission's people. It reminds me a little bit of my time in China which I describe often as a “can do” environment where you had a sort of impression that things were happening.
The building would be delivered on time of very high quality, very high standards in a very high, impressive high-tech environment, Info Park, and there is very good progress as well on the host agreement, which I expect is going to be signed in the next week. It is going to be ready and agreed in the coming weeks. So that is also a very strong indication of the support of the Hungarian authorities towards this institute. So I am honestly very impressed.
You have begun the process of staff selection. When do you expect to start the effective work in Hungary?
I would tend to say as soon as possible for the institute itself. However I am happy to have the opportunity to learn a bit more. There is a very strong team led by Madame Recalde from the EU side, and a lot of work has been done so far. Therefore I am happy that I have a bit of a time in Brussels, so the handover of the tasks can be done properly.
For the institute we need to come as soon as possible, however we need to build the IT infrastructure, put in the furniture and other things, so I would expect that people would start to come from February onwards and that in April we would actually start work in Budapest.
Back to the KICs, what do you expect the Communities to achieve? There have already been some efforts from the European Union to boost innovation, including the Framework Programme projects which have invested heavily in this sector. What can the European Innovation Technology Institute and the KICs add to this?
The EIT is only one out of many means to boost innovation, it is an experiment from a very original concept that is really trying to integrate the success rate of research work into commercial deployment. There are many more means to do that, and these need to be combined, as they already are.
Nobody has the monopoly of innovation. Innovation is everywhere. With the EIT therefore we are trying to bring our contribution to a great innovation performance in Europe.
When I was working for Shell, I was always impressed by the quality of the people at Shell as well, and yet there was a kind of gap in terms of values of innovation. Good work was done but still – to me at least – much more could have been generated from the investment in R&D.
We tried to make sure that here was a constant dialogue between people connected with the market and those in the research area. And that is essentially what the KICs are trying to do.
The KICs are trying to bring together education, research centres, knowledge centres and corporate business and through entrepreneurship – as a kind of crew – to turn the fruits of investment and research into tangible benefits. Europe has very talented people, but I think that there’s further room to improve, to boost our performance in terms of innovation.
In addition, there is urgency about this. In case of energy futures at Shell we found out that before you build business on a new source of energy – bio-fuel, wind or turning coal into liquid – it takes probably twenty to thirty years to bring the concept to maturity. But in terms of climate change and sustainable energy there is a key question: “Can we afford to have twenty or thirty years?” So we are now in a situation that we have to very quickly stabilize CO2 in the atmosphere and the conventional view of business-as-usual is not possible any more.
So, on the one hand you have a pool of highly talented people and an opportunity to extract even more out of them if you bring the right actors together. On the other hand you have a general environment where there is a need to do things differently – to innovate. The KICs on this are perfect examples: “How you can respond to an urgent need while creating new jobs and new opportunities in Europe and in-between answer to the competition of China, India, etc.
Are you using best practices or from other parts of the world? Are you examining this option?
Generally speaking, we take everything which is good. But one of the basic success criteria, a reason why the EIT has been successful, is that it is very simple, down to earth, and practical.
So if we go for best practices outside, we will still be careful not to create a monster because – again – the EIT is a small scale experiment. We will take from our side what exists, but it has to be down to earth, customized in a very simple, practical way.
The Chairman of the EIT’s Governing Board, Dr Martin Schuurmans, said that he does not agree with the amount of financing available and he wants more money for funding the EIT. Are you satisfied with the financing of the EIT?
I have not heard that. What I’ve heard is that there is indeed a limited amount of finance from the Community budget. It is no secret that the FP7 is financed with nearly €60 billion over so many years, and that the EIT will receive €309 million up to 2013, so we talk about two completely different scales.
However it is not about accessing new money, but doing things differently. The EIT is initially supposed to seed money, to spend money for the selected KICs to help them organize themselves. So if you want people to move on and relocate, you need to seed the amount of money. Then there is nothing more successful and contagious then success. The EIT is small but sometimes small things can have an impact, as the droplets that make the water overflow.
Now, money for the KICs is important but I don’t think that there is an argument about the amount of money, but about how to seed money. The board is working on a number of means to attract business funding and KICs will have to do that further on. One of the vehicles that the board is working on to attract private funding is a foundation. This is a complex undertaking because it will be the first foundation of a European body.
And so back to your question about best practices; do we use best practices? Yes, the board and a group of board members have been discussing with a number of foundations that have similarities and can help us very much in raising the foundation. Through that we hope to attract company, private donation of people that are interested in the EIT.
There’s always a problem with European projects that it starts funding something but the sustainability is not always secured. Is the EIT doing enough to secure that the projects keep running?
Innovation is about – to some extent – risk taking. And there’s nothing wrong with taking the risk. I’m very impressed by the kind of risk mitigation, risk taking and assurance management that the board is following. We are all doing our utmost, so that the KICs will deliver what we think they should deliver.
Still, it could fail. I think that like any new starter, like any new idea, it could fail. The base plan and our strong belief, is that it will not fail and that this way of working will generate success, and by generating success it will generate business. Eventually, the KICs will be independent. There is a seven-year framework agreement that is going to be signed between the KICs and the EIT, and that will define the relationship. This gives some stability and there is a strong belief that the KICs are going to be successful and generate like any business, their own future.
Could you very briefly say what your basic idea is about your future job or the basic line you would like to follow? My job is essentially an operational job. The overall strategy of the company is being defined by the board. And then comes of course the hard implementation of all of the strategy and all of its plans and that’s what I’m asked to do. I have built refineries, and I know what it takes, so I have clear targets.
A number of processes to enable the functioning of the KIC have to be put in place. So I’m going to do that but I’m also asked to try to simplify as much as I can and try to make sure that money invested goes to supporting the KIC and not into a bureaucratic organization.