EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas is now moving ahead with his plan to create a European Innovation Council (EIC), to act as a one stop shop for innovation and bring order to the widely dispersed innovation competitions running under the Horizon 2020 R&D programme.
European Commission officials have been working on the initiative behind the scenes for a few months and are now beginning to tap ideas from universities and industry on what exactly the new council should do.
As yet, there is no firm timetable, however, a spokeswoman for the Commissioner told Science|Business, “We are currently analysing the ideas and contributions received [from] a number of stakeholders and foresee a number of events over the coming months to deepen the debate on the EIC's future set-up.”
A wide range of ideas are up for discussion, including a suggestion that the new council should command similar resources to the ERC and hand out individual grants, or that its role should be a narrower advisory function, as played by institutes such as India’s National Innovation Council or the American Energy Innovation Council.
Others want to see the new EIC zoom in on the broad set of problems that are seen as hampering technology commercialisation in Europe, including clogged finance pipes and fragmented markets.
Aside from any practical support it can give, Moedas thinks the very presence of the new council will help put a brighter spotlight on Europe’s innovators. An EIC innovation prize is one idea being discussed. Another possibility that has been floated is an annual competition with a prize for the best failed business idea.
Moedas first mooted the idea of an EIC last July, saying, “We are rarely succeeding in getting research results to market. Technologies developed in Europe are most of the time commercialised elsewhere.”
However, Moedas is not the originator of the concept of the EIC, which has appeared in various guises over the years.
In 2002, the director of the Centre for Medical Innovations at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, Hans Wigzell, called for the creation of such an innovation body, saying it could, “professionally support the development of results of science and innovations into applications and products.”
In 2010, the EIC appears in a European Association of Research and Technology Organisation (EARTO) policy document as a body with, “the task of providing strategic, independent advice and guidance” to the Research Commissioner. More recently, EARTO published an expanded vision for the EIC in December.
Moedas strongly rates EU support for the first building block of innovation, basic research, but thinks more can be done to help European entrepreneurs.
“If you are a researcher, you know where to go if you have a great idea: you go to the ERC (European Research Council). If you are an innovator today, you really don’t know where to go,” he said last August.
The EIC should be modelled to do for innovation what the ERC has done for research, the Commissioner thinks. The ERC was set up in 2007 and quickly became popular with researchers, in particular for the relative simplicity of applying for funding from the body, not to mention the generous grants it awards.
The EIC initiative has been so far enthusiastically greeted by universities and companies.
Lobbyists in Brussels never tire of pointing out to the European Commission the many factors hindering young companies. Financial networks are concentrated, with London, Stockholm, Berlin and Paris being the source of almost half the continent's venture funding. Meanwhile, the significant paperwork, time and money needed to do business across the 28-country bloc mean companies find it hard to expand.
However, it seems likely some dissenting voices will be raised against the plan for a new innovation institute.
The EIC will need to assert its place next to the European Institute of Technology (EIT), which funds large consortia of universities, companies and others to translate basic research into companies, commercialise products, and train a generation of entrepreneurs.
Some researchers Science|Business has talked to say the EIC sounds like a needless clone of the EIT, which was set up in 2008 by former Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
Others say the EIT, originally pitched as a counterpart to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has produced little to date in terms of concrete results, so there is no harm in trying another approach. Moedas meanwhile, has insisted the EIT and EIC would not be in competition for funding.
The Commissioner may be intent on promoting the new council in conference halls across Europe this year, but it is unlikely the details will be finalised.
A more realistic goal would be to drum out a timetable for the institute. No fixed date has been given for when the EIC will open its doors.
And as yet – with the main Horizon 2020 budget lines settled – there is no funding for the project. In theory money could be found in 2017 following Horizon 2020’s scheduled midpoint review, and Moedas alluded to this possibility last year. Such a move would require the support of members of the European Parliament.
However the Commissioner is reluctant to overhaul Horizon 2020 budget lines to make space for the EIC, saying it would be too confusing. That leaves the option of earmarking funding for the EIC under the next EU Framework Research programme starting in 2021, or maybe looking to the innovation element of other funding streams such as structural funds, or attempting to pull in private sector support.
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