When French President Emmanuel Macron proposed the creation of a European innovation body modelled on the US DARPA last September, few believed it possible. But the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI) is taking shape.
“We are at an advanced stage,” André Loesekrug-Pietri, the mind behind the project, told EURACTIV in an interview. He conceded that the tech ecosystem in Europe is incapable of retaining its own talents, who prefer to try their luck in the US, where the culture of maximum risk has brought groundbreaking advances.
Like the 60-year-old DARPA, an agency of the United States Department of Defence responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military, JEDI will base its approach on meeting key development challenges rather than prescriptive specifications.
From its foundation in 1958, DARPA’s mission has been to fill the gap between academic work and the incremental innovation done by the military. Without DARPA, the world would have probably not seen projects that led to the creation of the internet, Global Positioning System, driverless cars, stealth, SpaceX and Siri.
The idea also for JEDI is to develop dozens of operational prototypes every year within timeframes of months rather than year, which is currently the case.
“Take glyphosate. No one tells you today, at least in France, that it is possible to find a replacement in three years,” explained Loesekrug-Pietri. “But if you launched a challenge, putting down €10 million, to find an alternative to glyphosate in 24 months, I can assure you that you would have a huge number of research teams that will activate themselves to do it.”
Projects will not last more than two years. By striving to get a prototype, it will be simpler to get investors and industrialists that would eventually be interested in producing and marketing the innovation.
“JEDI aims to encourage a winning mindset through a radical step change in term of risk-taking, project funding and speed of execution. The goal is to regain our technology leadership and thus restore our strategic and economic independence,” Loesekrug-Pietri added.
So far, France and Germany are behind the initiative. But the aim is to gain the interest and trust of the other 25 EU member states.
Unlike DARPA, however, the European sister will not function as an agency, but rather as a very lean, agile and responsible structure.
The permanent structure will be kept to a minimum, say the initiators. Ten project managers will each coach one or more selected funded projects full time. They will be seconded for a period of two years – renewable once – from leading research centres.
The human capital factor here is crucial, explained another firm supporter of JEDI, Jean-Paul Palomeros, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. Like DARPA, the goal will be for JEDI to be perceived as a career booster, thus attracting the best talents.
“We are ready to go: the 10 programme managers have been identified and so are the technology priorities—AI, cybersecurity, components, computing power, biotechnologies, energy storage and nanotechnologies.
But JEDI will work hard to eliminate ‘stovepipes’ through cross-fertilisation between disciplines.
The provisional budget is estimated at €235 million for 2018, the launch year, with €228 million for project funding and €7 million for operating costs. But the aim is to go up to €1 billion a year once the initiative gets going.
In comparison, DARPA has around 220 employees and an annual budget of $3 billion. It employs 100 project managers to oversee some 250 R&D projects in six specialised fields, including biotechnology, information innovation and microsystem technology.
Franco-German or European?
To bring on board other countries will not be easy. When Macron proposed the initiative, Carlos Moedas, EU Research commissioner, said the idea was identical to the European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot with a total budget of €2.7 billion for three years. But most EIC tools have a strong focus on close-to-market innovation.
“We don’t want to try to change the way innovation is financed,” reassured Palomeros. “But rather create a tool to fund disruptive innovation that at the moment does not exist.”
The goal is to stay ahead of the game rather than follow others – US and China. Time is the essence, insisted Loesekrug-Pietri, stressing that technology development cycles are getting shorter and shorter.