This article is part of our special report Innovation and the Digital Economy.
The European commissioner for research and innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, has publicly sought the support and advice of Internet rivals Microsoft and Google in her quest to carry through the EU executive’s ambitious €80-billion Horizon 2020 research programme.
The move demonstrates the Commission's belief that multinational corporations can be enlisted to persuade member states that the new framework programme, to be discussed in the Parliament and Council early next year, can bring growth.
Geoghegan-Quinn engaged in head-to-head discussions with senior executives from Google and Microsoft on consecutive days at the Innovation Convention in Brussels.
On Monday (5 December), Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, spoke on stage with the Commissioner.
Internet companies happy work places
Geoghagen-Quinn praised Google’s working environment in the company's Irish offices – which she has visited – claiming that she had never before seen a place where everybody appeared “so happy to be at work”.
She went on to ask the Google executive him how best the Commission could deliver public-sector innovation.
Schmidt said that one clear strategy would be to fast-forward to cloud computing, saying it would enable the Commission to “talk directly to citizens and ask them the right questions”.
Geoghegan-Quinn also quizzed Schmidt on what factors the company considered when investing in overseas markets.
Growing economies in Asia and Latin America are in pole position, he said, before praising Europe’s research universities as a big pull for software engineering talent. “We have thousands of engineers here [in Europe]. Your model proves that this can work elsewhere in Europe,” he said.
Microsoft: Research leads to jobs
The endorsement of research led-growth was echoed the following day when the Commissioner hosted a web-based transatlantic discussion with Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie.
The pair appeared in the conference in a virtual meeting room as avatars, with Geoghegan-Quinn in Brussels and Mundie in Palo Alto, California.
“I think it’s true that there is no way we can solve [societal challenges] without investment in basic science,” Mundie said.
He added that research should be the focus of governments – praising the Horizon 2020 programme – adding that development building on research could be carried out more in partnership with business.
The engagement with the two companies indicates that the commissioner wants to show member states that the EU executive intends to be active in leveraging research to create jobs through private-sector development.
The move will also raise eyebrows since it brought together two companies which are renowned rivals, and which have had difficult relations with the Commission.
Microsoft was subject to protracted antitrust action by the EU executive, whilst a case against Google – one of the reasons for Schmidt’s visit to Brussels – is ongoing.
With an ageing population and strong competitive pressures from globalisation, Europe's future economic growth and jobs will increasingly have to come from innovation in products, services and business models.
Innovation has been placed at the heart of the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs.
The first Innovation Convention took place in Brussels earlier this week a year after the adoption of the Innovation Union flagship initiative, the EU's roadmap to make Europe more competitive.
- European Commission Innovation Convention 2011