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Europe needs a one-stop shop for innovation policy

For Silvia Lenaerts, FP10 must build on Horizon Europe by improving clarity, alignment and synergy in everything it does to foster innovation. This can be achieved through a single European Innovation Policy.

Why?

More than ever before, we need to empower European innovation.

According to Mark Zachary Taylor’s theory of creative insecurity, it is the difference between the threats of economic or military competition from abroad and the dangers of political or economic rivalries at home that makes some countries better at innovation than others. Research institutions, policies, and networks are all subservient to politics. This is because innovation is not only new products or processes. It is also new governance, organization, or business models that create socio-economic value for society, not only in terms of broad prosperity but also for intangible assets, such as wellbeing. We need solutions for the challenges we are facing and long-term thinking, to be what Roman Krznaric described as ‘good ancestors’ that build a better future and inclusive prosperity for (future) Europeans.

Universities are powerhouses of talent development, ground-breaking research and innovation and culture that serves society. That’s exactly why they need to be tightly connected to innovation ecosystems, and act as independent and honest brokers towards science and technology.

Europe’s unique culture of creativity and collaboration, its top universities and knowledge institutes, and the proximity of policy makers, entrepreneurs and citizens offer the perfect cradle for ecosystems to deliver innovation. It’s all about people. And we must ensure the connection between people, universities, higher education and research institutes, industry, policy makers and citizens. We should attract and retain our top talent in industry and academia all over Europe, not only in the richest nations and regions. We need a level playing field for and within Europe, and can achieve this by creating a joined-up European Innovation Policy.

How?

The European Union’s framework programmes for research and innovation have proven their tremendous value for millions of people all over Europe. For example, the instruments dedicated to ‘Innovative Europe’ in Pillar III of Horizon Europe play an important role in fostering a dynamic and flourishing European innovation ecosystem, but there is insufficient clarity, alignment, and synergy.

Consolidating all innovation components of the programme within a single pillar was a positive step. However, the links between its various instruments, particularly the European Innovation Council (EIC), the European Innovation Ecosystems (EIE), and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), were not sufficiently examined as they were designed in parallel. The same is true for how they relate to other instruments within Horizon Europe, such as the programme’s other European Partnerships and Missions. Moreover, the synergies between Horizon Europe and the EU Structural and Cohesion Funds are not yet fully developed. Europe needs to address how it can better link these tools and connect local, regional, and national innovation policies to those of the EU.

The EIT is Europe’s largest innovation ecosystem, having involved more than 2500 partners from business, education, and research, supported more than 100 000 students, and backed more than 9900 ventures that have raised over €9.5 billion in private follow-up investment. The EIT’s first Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) are now entering the phase of financial sustainability.

In turn, the EIC is Europe’s deep tech innovation programme to identify, develop and scaleup breakthrough technologies and game changing innovations. It does so throughout the lifecycle, from early-stage research to proof of concept, technology transfer, and the financing and scale up of start-ups and SMEs. Finally, the EIE should act in concert and synergy with the EIT and EIC.

Now, we have the momentum to create one European Innovation Policy by connecting the current three instruments in Pillar III. This will provide a clear one-stop shop for innovation support in the European Union.

What else?

To set up one European Innovation Policy we need a joint Innovation Governing Board for Pillar III. It should provide clarity, alignment, and synergy by bundling the expertise, independence, flexibility, inclusiveness, fairness, efficiency, and effectiveness of the current innovation instruments. Strong European leadership, duly considering the rich diversity of the different member states, is badly needed to achieve more innovation and create value for society. We must reinforce connectedness to keep and attract talent, money and infrastructure for innovation.

In addition, the strengthening of Pillar I (Excellent science) is a prerequisite for attracting and retaining top talent. Pillar II, addressing societal challenges, could be simplified in terms of governance and the applicants that it targets. While collaboration between EIT, EIC, and EIE will be the primary element for a successful Pillar III. Shifting from an ‘everybody does everything’ mindset to a ‘focus on what we do best’ approach will allow FP10 to leverage the strengths of the programme’s instruments and maximize opportunities for innovators, from idea to scale-up, in all sectors.

The EIT ensures that the community aspect goes beyond individual partnerships and encourages their cooperation. Meanwhile, the EIC is the deep tech innovation powerhouse and its focus on scale-ups is of great value. We need to combine the strong seeding and broad presence of the EIT with the EIC’s approach to ‘picking winners’ to boost inclusive value creation and innovation output. It is indispensable that the educational, re-skilling and upskilling component is a distinctive feature, implying that universities be more active and take up responsibility in Pillar III.

EUA’s vision for ‘Universities without walls’ clearly points to the leading role of universities in innovation ecosystems. Universities bring together stakeholders around a common vision, bridging different cultures spanning academia, business, and start-ups, to civil society and the social and cultural scene. They should reinforce their contribution to the development of knowledge and skills together with partners within the ecosystem.

Let’s foster our European culture of great universities and top companies, focus on innovation and dare to make brave choices by creating one European Innovation Policy.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

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

Silvia Lenaerts

Silvia Lenaerts is Rector Magnificus of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and sits on the board of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). She is a member of EUA’s Expert Group on Innovation.

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