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Interview with Jean Chambaz, president of Sorbonne University

Jean Chambaz, president of Sorbonne University, talks with EUA about the importance of innovation capacity, funding and ecosystems.

You have presided over an important merger of University Pierre and Marie Curie and Paris-Sorbonne in Paris. What was the impact of the merger on the university’s innovation capacity?

It is too early to say – the merger happened just over a year ago! However, I am convinced that overall it will be positive. Sorbonne University is now a comprehensive university, involving medicine, sciences, engineering, arts and humanities. This will unlock a new potential for innovation activities: interdisciplinarity will create opportunities for new approaches in every field and entirely new possibilities at the interfaces of disciplines. The transdisciplinary institutes we launched on environmental transition, engineering for health and personalized medicine, data computing, simulation and artificial intelligence, heritage and music are good examples of this approach: they bring together different academic communities around major societal challenges.

We were already innovative universities before the merger and innovation naturally becomes one of the core missions of Sorbonne University. It is our ambition to become leaders in technology and knowledge transfer, innovation and entrepreneurship, a driver of economic growth and an essential stakeholder of the innovation ecosystem at local, national, European and international levels. This is a priority for the institution, and we are setting up the adequate institutional dynamics to make it possible.

As universities, what do we need in terms of framework conditions – funding, governance, legislation – so that we can realise our full potential in the innovation field?

European universities are unique players in that they integrate research, education, innovation and service to society. However, we can ask whether the innovation policies take the best from this unique position in building innovation ecosystems. Funding and the regulatory framework are inextricably linked.

Most European universities are limited in their ability to invest and manage their own investment funds, as is still the case for French universities. The ability to own equity would give universities new income streams to leverage, maybe even enough to make use of financial instruments such as the Juncker plan. Although it aimed in part to promote research and innovation, the Juncker Plan was a complete flop for universities and public R&D organisations, because the adequate regulatory framework simply was not there.

We do have the end-to-end capabilities with the instruments necessary to fully foster innovation through incubation, maturation, investment, but tight governmental control does not allow universities to be fully responsible, trusted stakeholders of innovation that can freely support the whole R&I value chain. Indeed, their capacity to invest in high-risk innovative projects is all about flexibility and swiftness.

Nevertheless, within this limited framework there are things universities can already do themselves. This conference rightly highlights ecosystems: universities should work together with companies, end-users and decision-makers to bring solutions to market. Because they are at the crossroads of higher education, research and innovation, universities are natural leaders for these ecosystems, and they should create interfaces that bring together the relevant stakeholders. This is the goal of Paris Parc, a place of innovation and entrepreneurship at Sorbonne University, which will be inaugurated in the coming years. Universities should also work together at the European level to foster synergies between research, higher education and innovation, which we are trying to achieve with the 4EU+ Alliance.

Europe is often portrayed as being behind the US and China in innovation. How does that look for you with your wide European experience? Where are Europe’s strengths and weaknesses, particularly with regard to our university systems?

Overall, the European Union has outstanding researchers and great scientific output. However, it still has not reached the target of 3% of GDP for R&D expenses. This is one obvious problem to solve. According to the OECD, Europe has spent 1.96% of its GDP on R&D in 2017. For the US, it’s 2.79%. For Korea and Israël, it’s more than 4%. For China, it’s 2.13% and rising fast.

The second problem is more specific to innovation. We still have not found, at the European level, a suitable solution to fund the interval between a prototype and the finalization of a service or product ready to be brought to market. The EIC has been launched to detect and support EU unicorns. However, there is still a gap that is not adequately covered anywhere in the future Framework Programme. There is no real instrument to fund excellent innovation ecosystems.

As the EUA and others have reaffirmed multiple times, these ecosystems are crucial for innovation to emerge. Knowledge and Innovation Communities, because they are supposed to become financially sustainable on their own, tend to favor the highest TRL activities in order to generate consistent income streams. However, that means they are not sufficient to fund all stages of innovation within innovation ecosystems. The future European innovation ecosystems programme represents less than 1% of the total provisional budget of Horizon Europe.

My third point would be the need for a change of mindset in some European universities. I have already talked about the need for universities to become strategic, independent investors. They have to embrace their role as economic stakeholders as well as to promote entrepreneurship and innovation in their communities. Student entrepreneurs and researcher entrepreneurs are still relatively rare in Europe. The lack of flexibility in academic careers is a symptom of the divide that exists in Europe between the world of researchers and professors and the world of entrepreneurs and companies.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Jean Chambaz

Jean Chambaz has been serving as president at Sorbonne University since January 2018 and previously at the Pierre and Marie Curie University. MD by training, he was awarded a doctorate in Sciences at UPMC in 1988.  He was the first chair of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education (2008-2011), and was member of the EUA Board (2015-2018).

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