EIT chief: ‘You don’t build Silicon Valley overnight’

Martin Kern [Jorge Valero]

As the Commission unveiled a new set of measures to support startups in Europe on Tuesday (22 November), Martin Kern, interim director of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), warned that building the “right ecosystem” will not happen overnight.

The institute faced difficulties in expanding its ecosystem to new fields, as the new innovation community for added value manufacturing did not take off due to the lack of quality proposals.

Martin Kern is the interim director of the EIT. Prior to joining the institute, he worked at the European Commission for 15 years in a variety of posts, mainly concerning enlargement policy

Kern spoke to euractiv.com’s Jorge Valero.

What is the state of play of the EIT’s Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs)?

We can be very happy of being now in a much-advanced phase. In all fronts, we have seen a good growth, more results and impact. The three first KICs (energy, climate and digital) have reached full maturity, and can bring a lot of success stories.

We can be very happy of being now in a much-advanced phase. In all fronts, we have seen a good growth, more results and impact. The three first KICs (energy, climate and digital) have reached full maturity, and can bring a lot of success stories.

We have seen also a robust start-up phase in the raw material KIC, set up two years ago. It has huge potential. Everything is built on raw materials. It resonates everywhere.

EIT boss: ‘There is a new focus on measuring results’

The European Institute of Technology has come under heavy criticism from EU auditors, who flagged a “lack of tangible results” in a recent report. But most issues have now largely been addressed, assures Martin Kern, who promises a new focus on results.

Last week, we designated a new KIC for food. The food sector seems right for innovation in all the different phases of the food supply chain, from the producers to the consumers. Even beyond that, how to deal with food waste. There are plenty opportunities, as the digital revolution feeds into this. And it is consumer-centered, because it is about how to produce more sustainable and safer food that consumers can trust.

You also announced the launching of a KIC on added value manufacturing. What happened during the process?

We had only one proposal from a consortium. It was carefully analysed by experts and our governing board. The EIT governing board unanimously decided that they would not designate a KIC in this field, because the proposal did not meet the overarching excellence criteria that we are looking for. It did not meet the innovation potential and quality that we are looking for.

Why did it fail to meet the excellence criteria?

I will not go into the details of the proposal. In early December, there will be a governing board meeting to discuss how to go from here. The key is to make a very detailed analysis. Why there was only one proposal, and why that proposal failed to have the right quality.

It is quite surprising there was only one proposal, given that digitalisation of industry has become such a top priority in Europe.

Of course, more proposals would be positive. We have always encouraged competition. But that was not the decisive factor. It was really the excellence criteria, which was not met.

The European Commission unveiled a package of proposals to support start-ups. Is this enough?

There are many elements for adding more entrepreneurial culture and an entrepreneurship framework. The two decisions will strongly contribute to that. Obviously, you need to have access to finance and more investments, for start-ups but also for scaling up. The second decision on the regulatory side will make easier for companies to grow. I would not say we only need this. You need an ecosystem that makes innovation more likely to happen.

Navracsics: EIT must be ‘more visible, more transparent and more compact’

The beginnings of the European Institute of Technology (EIT), created in 2008, were “probably a little bit slow and complicated,” admits Tibor Navracsics, the Commissioner overseeing the EU’s flagship innovation agency. But things should be back on track soon, he told EURACTIV.

Why is Europe still not as advanced as the US when it comes to start-ups?

Again, there are many elements. It is about the scale of money, which we do not see in Europe. But ultimately for me, it comes down to having the right ecosystem, like the one you have in Silicon Valley, where you have an enormous concentration of venture capital, talent coming out of universities, and existing companies that are innovation driven. Ideas get together and very quickly they get the support they need.

Companies find the team members and partners they need. And this is not built overnight. That is what we are trying to build here, but of course, it is not comparable because Europe has a different setup, much more diverse, different member states. That is why we implemented in the EIT community a decentralised model that builds on our strengths of not having one hub in Europe, but the connection between different hubs.

Is a concentration model more appropriate to build the right ecosystem, as Silicon Valley has shown?

I would not say that. You have to find the solutions that are suitable to your own situation. You cannot copy or say this is the only solution, because you are talking about different fields, different thematic areas. We also see this with our KICs. They are organised differently depending on the societal challenge they address. That is the way it can work in Europe. You do not need to be physically in one place.

But concentration spurs creativity and cooperation.

Not necessarily. It can also create competition. If you have a good idea, maybe it is not picked up because someone else got the limelight.

To what extent do private ecosystems, like Apple or Google’s, support innovation, as these companies argue? Or do they cannibalise or limit innovation to some specific fields?

I do not think there is a black or white answer to this question. Certainly, these platforms you mention have a lot of potential, as they offer very good opportunities to bring some innovations very fast. But that does not mean something disruptive cannot happen outside the system, like in the field of the Internet of Things.

Audit shines light on EU’s attempt to mimic America’s celebrated MIT

The Court of Auditors has issued a humbling review of the European Institute of Technology, tainting the legacy of José Manuel  Barroso, the former President of the European Commission who spearheaded what was initially intended a showcase EU project.

While the EIT´s headquarters are situated in Budapest, the EIT is not limited to one campus as a traditional institute, instead of operating through 'Knowledge and Innovation Communities' (KICs).

Each of the KICs operates across a number of hubs called ‘co-location centres’ and there are currently 19 co-location centres spread across Europe. It brings together more than 800 partners in business, education, and research.

Thanks to the EIT support, more than 200 startups have been created

KICs cover the entire innovation chain, from training and education programmes to market access.

Each KIC has been set up as a legal entity and has appointed a CEO to run its operations. The EIT has provided the KICs with a great degree of autonomy to define their legal status, internal organisation, and working methods.

Former Commission President José Manuel Barroso floated the idea of a European MIT in 2005. But the project ran into difficulties as soon as the proposal landed on the table of national leaders.

An independent report published in 2011 already highlighted teething problems, pointing to “inefficiencies” in the EIT’s management. “Tensions” soon emerged between the EIT and European Commission staff in charge of supervising the Budapest-based agency, leading to “misunderstanding, frustration, and inefficient behaviour”.

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