Commissioner: EU innovation must pick up speed

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The EU needs to improve its “innovation climate” and the speed with which it transforms research into commercial products, EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Poto?nik told EURACTIV in an interview.

Janez Poto?nik is European commissioner for science and research.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

How do you feel the Innovation Days events have gone, and what do they tell us about the state of European innovation? 

I have the feeling that it’s been going pretty well, if you look around, you can see that there are some innovative products and ideas and that’s of course pleasing to me. 

But I was also participating in the Eureka conference earlier and I think it was a good one, because it was clearly giving the message that we [in Europe] have to open to the rest of the world. 

And we also discussed the Eurostars project, which is quite a success. 

Cross-border collaboration, the premise upon which Eureka is built, seems to be quite innovative in itself. Is continued internationalisation (i.e. expansion of the Eureka network beyond Europe’s borders) the way forward for the organisation, do you think? 

It’s not only for Eureka. Eureka started 25 years ago with a bottom-up programme which is especially good for small to medium-sized enterprises. 

Now, I think, Eureka has 39 members. It’s an intergovernmental programme, the Commission is one of the members, and we are quite proud, particularly of the last programme we worked on together and co-financed: Eurostars. 100 million euros for this project is coming from the Commission, and 300 million from the member states. 

The programme is relatively simple as it’s based on Eureka rules, and on the other hand, from our side, the framework and evaluation of common data from the projects gives it stability. 

So it’s kind of the best possible merger of two programmes. 

On the broader level, where do we currently stand in the framing of a genuine EU innovation policy? 

There are huge differences in Europe. You can find countries like the Nordic states which are top of the innovation scoreboard, and countries which are struggling to get good results in innovation. 

So on average, I think we’re not so bad at all. Sometimes we underestimate the things which we are doing. But the world is changing, and fast: if you look at the Asian countries especially – China, South Korea, India and the others – you can see we are getting very strong competition. That’s not bad at all, but it means in essence we have to take these changes into account when we design our policies and act globally. 

You mentioned South Korea, which is the Eureka network’s newest associate member. The Korean minister who addressed the Innovation Days said that one of his country’s particular strengths is aggressively moving from the research to the market product stage. We frequently hear this cited as a weakness in the EU, that we don’t move to the final product stage fast enough. Do you think that’s a fair criticism? 

Yes, I think it’s one of the problems we face in Europe. We are relatively strong in creating knowledge, in research itself, but when transferring this to products – I would not say we are weak or bad, but compared to those who are on top in this area – we could do better. 

It’s difficult to say what the reasons for this are. One would probably need to start with the overall innovation climate: how attractive we are, how much uptake we get, what instruments we have from risk and venture capital. 

Actually, the whole of society is bringing the innovation itself, and that’s one of the problems we have which unfortunately you cannot change fast. But you have to work consistently in that direction. 

So in that regard, for the incoming Commission and its five-year programme ahead, are we likely to see revived projects such as the (EIT), for example? What concrete steps are you taking to provide a climate where these things can succeed? 

We are working in various areas. The EIT, which you mentioned, is one of them. First calls for proposals were launched. It still remains to be seen how the knowledge and innovation communities will work, but I have a lot of hope for these projects on the EU level. 

Another project inside the framework programme is the European Research Council, which has pretty much changed the view of the quality of research in the EU across the Atlantic – we are now seen as quite competitive – and this new instrument is truly breaking some of the barriers which were existing in Europe. 

So I have full belief and trust that these activities will change our reality. 

A mantra in Brussels this year – the European Year of Innovation and Creativity – seems to be that there is ‘no time like a recession to start a company’. Do you believe that is true, and do you think there will be a good uptake of the new framework programme (which bundles all research-related EU initiatives together under a common roof)? 

A crisis is truly a good opportunity to change some things. I know that many believe a crisis is a time when exceptional measures or exceptional instruments would be worth risking. I would rather tend to say that a crisis is the best time to do the things which we already knew we needed to do, but could not do before, because there was not enough political will or courage, or interests were going in the opposite direction. 

So it’s truly a time when one could change, in a structural way, some of the things we were not able to do before. And I think that when we deal with the crisis, we must think of the time when it will be over. We have to come out of the crisis ready for future competition, and ready for the global changes which are ahead of us. 

So while we are taking short-term measures, while we’re thinking about how to support new investment and new consumption, we have also to think of what type of consumption and what type of innovation will be able to answer the question relating to climate change, energy, future pandemics and so on. 

As a follow-up question, the Swedish EU Presidency is expected to focus on ‘greening’ the economy, sustainable development and green tech. Does that bode well for Europe becoming a world leader in these fields? 

I think it’s an ideal situation and to be honest, we don’t have a lot of choice other than to do that. When we talk about the future and climate change questions, for me there’s only one question: is climate change a reality and is it caused by human beings? 

If you believe it is, then it’s only us who can reverse the trend. So the one who understands that reality fastest will also be the winner on the market, and this is the major market of opportunity. 

I think that by the activity on the 2020 climate goals, proposed by the Commission and adopted by the Council, we have created the major lead market and we have to take that opportunity. 

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