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AI Interview: Martin Schuurmans, chairman of the governing board of the European Institute of Innova

As Europe battens down to weather further economic crises, European Union governments are coming together to try and find new ways of surviving the storm. One such effort is the European Institute of Innovation and Technology or EIT whose mission is to grow and capitalize on the innovation capacity of educational bodies, business, industry and research by setting up Knowledge and Innovation Communities or KICs.

These KICs are expected to become attractive investment destinations for the private sector. Plus they will also rely on other sources for financial security – such as a EUR 308.7 million budget from the EU and the possibility of KIC partners applying for government funds. “Europe could still do much better in innovation. Although there are excellent European education and research institutions, they are often rather isolated from the business world and do not obtain the ‘critical mass’ necessary for innovation. The EIT is set to overcome these shortcomings through a novel approach: it is the first European initiative to integrate fully the three sides of the ‘Knowledge Triangle (higher education, research, business-innovation). Concretely, this means the EIT will allow Europe’s excellent universities, research centers, businesses and other innovation actors to grow and capitalize on their innovation capacity and capability. In doing so, the EIT seeks to stand out as a world-class innovation-orientated reference model, inspiring and driving change in existing education and research institutions,” says EIT.

The EIT recently launched the call for proposals for its first KICs. The KICs are expected to be chosen by December 2009. The KICs are expected to be innovative webs of excellence, responding to key societal challenges such as sustainable energy, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the future information and communication society. A strong component of KICs’ innovation strategies will be to educate and develop entrepreneurial people working across traditional borders, sectors and disciplines.

The first three KICs will be selected from 3 themes – future information and communication society, sustainable energy and climate change mitigation and adaptation. EIT says that although avenues for cross-fertilization exist between the different themes, each KIC must principally address one of these three themes. Three seminars were hosted in Budapest, Vienna and Madrid respectively, to give interested parties from each priority area the opportunity to engage in an open dialogue with members of the EIT governing board. Each seminar generated much interest from across Europe and beyond, with representatives from business, entrepreneurship, government, higher education, research and technology transfer – reflecting the EIT’s objective of bringing together all parts of the innovation web said EIT.

EIT’s work comes at an opportune time for the European automotive industry which has been hit by the global economic slowdown. The European Commission had declared last year that it would focus on strengthening the competitiveness of the European automotive industry by implementing effective internal market regulatory framework as well as streamlining technical requirements across the EU market. The automotive industry in the EU accounts for twelve million jobs. However, the industry has also seen new vehicle registrations drop by 20 per cent last year. 

Automotive Industries spoke to Martin Schuurmans, chairman of the governing board of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology.

Q1: How do you see the role of the EIT in the current economic crisis? 

In this difficult financial and economic period, the need for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) has become even more acute. It is not despite, but because of the economic downswing that innovation is a topic of utmost importance. If we set the right priorities now and strategically invest in innovation, we will emerge stronger from the crisis. If we fail to do so, we will further fall back behind our international competitors.
I am glad that the EIT is recognized as a key component of the European recovery strategy, also politically. The EIT is more and more seen as having the potential to be a powerful new driver of sustainable growth and competitiveness in Europe. We therefore believe very much that the EIT’s Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) are the right tools at the right time.

Q2: What is so special about the Knowledge and Innovation Communities? 

The Knowledge and Innovation Communities are based on a novel concept, bringing closely together actors from all three sides of the knowledge triangle – business, higher education and research. The KICs will build innovative ‘webs of excellence’ on a European scale, creating new business for both existing industry as well as new endeavours. We expect them to have a significant positive economic and societal impact, for example through job creation and brain gain. What is more, KICs will educate and develop entrepreneurial people – thereby promoting a new entrepreneurial culture in Europe in the long run.

We expect the KICs to implement these objectives through a limited number of co-location centres. Each co-location centre must cover the larger part of the innovation web, ideally the whole innovation web. Different co-location centres may – but need not necessarily – reflect different sub-topics and sub-goals of a KIC. Intentionally we do not want to be more specific than this, in order to leave room for ‘innovation’ on co-location by the KICs themselves.

Q3: The EIT has defined three priority areas for the first KICs: How have these themes been chosen? And what are some of the energy saving initiatives EIT is pushing?

The themes have been chosen on a strategic basis, covering areas that represent the foremost current and future challenges facing the European Union. As you know, the themes are rather broad: climate change adaptation and mitigation, sustainable energy, and the future information and communication society. It is on purpose that the Governing Board has not delineated these topics any further, since we believe very much that innovation cannot be a top-down exercise. 

In other words, we are not pushing or promoting any specific area. It is up to the KICs proposers to set their focus. What counts for the EIT is the economic, environmental, societal and innovation impact of the KIC in the context of European challenges and policies.

AI: What was the reaction at the three seminars hosted by you and what were the reactions you got from educational bodies and industry?

So far, the EIT held five thematic seminars on the KICs: one on the KIC format as such, then one each for the three thematic areas and most recently, one on entrepreneurship. I am very pleased to say that reactions were extremely positive and that these seminars have significantly helped the EIT to develop the KIC concept in close conjunction with its stakeholders. For us in the Governing Board it was very interesting to see how discussions evolved in this relatively short period since the EIT launch a few months ago. And this applies both to academia and industry. Of course, this is a challenging model for both academia and industry, but we are quite satisfied by the positive signals from higher education and research as well as from the private sector – and this despite the difficult overall economic situation.

AI: What has the response been to your call for proposals for the setting up of KICs?

It is of course still too early for an assessment, since the call for proposals will be open until the end of August. However, judging from the positive general reactions, we expect to get a solid number of eligible proposals in the three areas. I am very optimistic that we will see a good selection for the first two to three KICs by the end of this year.