EIT Chair: ‘China and US are moving more quickly than we are’

Martin Schuurmans ITV.jpg

Martin Schuurmans, chairman of the newly-formed European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), says he is "not pessimistic" about Europe's ability to lead on research and innovation. But it needs to speed up if it wants to keep up with global competitors, the EIT chairman told EURACTIV in an interview.

Dr. Martin Schuurmans is chairman of the EIT's Governing Board.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Editor Frédéric Simon.

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

Were you involved in preparations for the EIT headquarters in Budapest? Is the office already fully staffed?

The EIT office has been open since 1 April. We now have a director, Gérard de Nazelle, together with a staff that is now about 20 people.

Is there more recruitment underway?

A phase of intense recruitment is going on. And we assume that by the end of the year, we will be about 35 to 40 staff. As you are probably aware, we would like to keep the office lean, but only by working our way forward will we discover about potential extra staffing needs. In principle, we have a capacity for about 60 people. That will depend on how the Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) evolve.

How are the Budapest headquarters involved in day-to-day administration of these Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs)? Is it hands-on management or is it very decentralised?

The KICs are independent entities. They are actually a legal and financial entity. And as such, they are independent organisations. But of course, the EIT in terms of knowledge – for example on entrepreneurship education – has a lot to offer and so they will be working closely together.

The KICs are still very much in the planning process. They are not yet fully up and running. The decision was taken on 16 December last year and currently the KICs are in discussion with the EIT office – led by EIT Director Gérard de Nazelle – on finalising the contracts for this year and the coming years for all three of them.

You have described the KICs as "webs of excellence". However, the Networks of Excellence (NoE), which have been funded so far by the European Commission's framework programme for research, were criticised by the Court of Auditors, because they tend to fall apart once the public money has dried up. How will the KICs be fundamentally different in this respect?

In principle, the KICs will be moving forward for a period of 13 years. And innovation – as you know – can be a slow process and so there will be money available for a long period of time. So that is the key.

And another element which is key – and which I have not seen often in Europe – is that the KICs really combine three elements of the knowledge triangle: research and technology, education, and some of the top businesses that subscribe to the three topics: climate, energy and ICT.

This is a very workable situation and I would also say it gears us up in principle for good business creation for the future.

Do you expect to see results throughout the 13-year period of these KICs?

What we expect is a business plan that will describe goals for the long term, but then there will also be intermediate delivery steps on a yearly basis.

You have indicated in the past that the amount of funding available to the EIT was too low and that private funding would be needed to make the KICs sustainable. How successful has the EIT been in attracting private funds so far?

What we are doing to attract private funding is that we plan to establish an EIT foundation. And that process is now well underway. We assume that the foundation will be established in the fall of this year. And we are now also in the process of building the first contacts with organisations that could provide private funding into such a foundation.

You have to remember that such a foundation will be an independent entity with the purpose of supporting the EIT and the KICs with money that can be spent entirely at the discretion of the foundation. Now setting up such a foundation always takes a little bit of time, but we're almost there.

What kind of private funding are you looking at? Is it mainly from big multinationals, private donors or other sources?

We are looking at every source of funding possible. There are many organisations in Europe, not only businesses but also foundations and so we need to look at that, but I think it is too early to make an assessment.

Do you have a benchmark for success or a threshold above which you will consider that the EIT has been successful in attracting funding?

It is a bit difficult to foresee at this point in time, so I would prefer not to give you a precise figure. But the amount, of course, must stand in relation to current EU funding for the next four years, which is 300 million euros. If it is much much smaller than that, then you cannot speak about private funding. But I cannot assume that it will be bigger.

Have you been trying to get SMEs involved in some of these KICs? Would you describe this as a challenge?

Well, we have always said that for us, a key driver of the knowledge triangle is entrepreneurship. We believe it is not only the glue but also the driving force that will lead to new business creation. Having said that, it means that you need to be involved in the creation of small companies. And so that it starts with big existing companies but also with small companies. And indeed, our KICs have involved companies of all sizes and also have laid the first contacts with the venture capital community. So, yes, that is being addressed.

When will the next batch of KICs be announced and what areas might they cover?

The EIT would not be a success without a next round. But I can already assure you that many different parties are showing a strong interest in participating in a new round of KICs.

Around which areas?

I cannot tell you about the areas right now, but I can tell you the following: the normal round of funding for new KICs would have to go in line with the new financial envelope that will come out of the new, multiannual Financial Framework. And that means that normally, we could see new KICs immediately after 2013.

We are starting to work with the Commission on a strategic innovation agenda. And when that is done – which is by the middle of 2011 – that will culminate in a plan that will go to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which at the end of the day will lead to the financial envelope for this type of activity.

So 2013 is in principle the earliest you can foresee.

Did you follow through on your pledge to ignore applications for KICs that are over 40 pages long?

100%.

Did that lead to many applications being rejected?

No, because applicants have become aware of the process.

The EIT answers to the European commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth. Does this still seem like the right fit given that there is now a commissioner for innovation?

I am very happy to work with [Education] Commissioner [Androulla] Vassiliou and have already met with her several times to discuss the way forward for the EIT. I am also very happy with any effort made by the Commission on innovation.

The main role of the EIT in the context of innovation and research is a little bit to act as an ice-breaker and the KICs are acting as role models. So, we are tackling a number of societal challenges that we have. We are dealing with a new form of integration where we have all participants in the knowledge triangle in the chain.

We are experimenting with new forms of governance, because we are clearly demanding that the KICs have a CEO-type leadership, and we are looking at financing arrangements of different sorts. So we are experimenting a little bit and that was also clearly what the European Parliament and Commission wanted us to do. So, we'll take it from there.

As such, I feel perfectly comfortable with our role regarding the European Commission. We have very good contacts both with Mrs. Vassiliou and with Mrs. [Maire] Geoghegan-Quinn [the current innovation commissioner], who will lead the research and innovation plan. And [European] Commission President [José Manuel] Barroso supports us.

What are you expecting from the Commission’s upcoming Research & Innovation Plan?

It is a bit early at this point to give expectations. What I can say from an EIT perspective is the following: in our Strategic Innovation Agenda (due next summer) we will speak about how the EIT can contribute to the European innovation landscape. On KIC domains, what can be learned, what can be done better, what should be avoided and so forth. And then all of that will be incorporated in an appropriate plan, which at the end of the day will be discussed in the Commission and lead to concerted action.

What is your view on the Europe 2020 strategy? Do you see it as a driver for your own activities?

Well, we will certainly contribute to the implementation of the 2020 plan. There are certain elements there which have drawn our attention. One was entrepreneurship, the other one is mobility in Europe, but also in an international context.

Do you see the mobility of researchers as a pressing issue, for example on social rights portability?

We have requested that our KICs would be centred on co-location centres. And a co-location centre for us is a dense point in Europe – it could be a city – where we find all the components of the knowledge triangle together and where people could jointly work on the deliverables of the business plan. And so the mobility is first of all from an EIT perspective served by bringing the relevant parties together in such a small radius that they can actually work together and that they don't have to communicate with each other through paper. And that is a very key element from an EIT perspective.

On a broader European perspective, the KICs will need to have excellent communication between the different co-location centres. And that will be ensured for example by the mobility plan that already exists at the Commission and upon which we will be building.

Is that a big issue for Europe?

No, I don't think so. Maybe to some extent, but I think mobility will work almost automatically if there are sufficiently attractive co-location centres in Europe. Yes, next to that of course, existing barriers in Europe between different pension plans and so on will have to be removed, but this is not something that is a task for the EIT.

We look at it from a perspective of organising our KICs so they can contribute optimally to the business deliverables that we will have. 

When the EIT was created, it was decided that there would be no 'campus' like that of the MIT in the US. Do you see communication as the biggest challenge for the success of these KICs?

No, the biggest challenge for the success of the KICs is to handle the entrepreneurship in an appropriate way.

But coming back to your question about communication: each of the KICs has five or six co-location centres in Europe. So they really are clustered organisations of the knowledge triangle. And it is very interesting to see that already today, governments and organisations are looking into clustering even more as a forceful way of bringing together potential stakeholders in a given area.

And this of course is precisely what you want, because we have excellent centres in Europe. The only thing that we need to do is to cluster them and focus them on the business deliverables. This is precisely what is happening today. If we can then also foster entrepreneurship, leading to new business creation, and if we can foster entrepreneurship education, which is not the strongest in Europe, yes I think we have a good chance of success.

Looking to the future, we are currently seeing the US and China in particular putting in place very aggressive innovation policies, for example on green technologies. Do you think that in 2020, there will be an even wider gap in innovation between Europe and these countries?

If you look at it from the perspective of research and technology in, let's say, environmental technology and energy, clearly Europe belongs to the leaders of the world. So, we do have a very good starting point.

But many of our competitors – and you mentioned China and the United Sates – are moving more quickly than we are. So what we now have done is bring those elements together in innovation communities.

I can tell you that the Chinese people have a very vivid interest in learning more about the EIT. To some extent we will have to team up and then move forward. I am not pessimistic, but we need to speed up, speed up, speed up, and become realistic in our business deliverables and stick to deliverables. An output-orientation is what you need.    

Do you think the EIT and the KICs will be sufficient to achieve this?

No, there will have to be more, obviously. I cannot foresee at this moment in time how many KICs we will have in 2020. I sincerely hope that there will be a significant number of them, in competition with each other, of course. And that will be a contribution.

Will there be other contributions? I am sure there will have to be. But I think we can still pull this off.

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