EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas has put flesh on his vision of creating a European Innovation Council (EIC), saying it should reward groups of companies and universities that are willing to work in multi-disciplinary teams on breakthrough technologies and adopt a venture capital-type approach to awarding grants, including interviewing applicants before awarding money.
In addition it will provide better signposting to newcomers hitherto put off by the confusing EU funding landscape and help identify legislative logjams that are holding back emerging new technologies.
In an overt sales pitch to delegates at the Science|Business Horizon 2020 conference today in Brussels, Moedas said, “We have been here for 20 years saying we’re good at creating knowledge, but not at converting it into businesses or products. I think it’s time to stop that conversation and do something about it.”
It was already known that the Commissioner envisaged the EIC as a new, easy to digest, one-stop shop for the many innovation competitions run through the Horizon 2020 R&D programme. He has commented before on the scattered and confusing funding instruments run by Brussels.
But today, he outlined a broader wish list, saying that the EIC should help Europe find game changing technology, cultivate talent and close the gap with the US.
The goal is to foster technologies and markets nobody is expecting, he said. “It’s a challenge because we’re talking about using taxpayer money to do it. But I believe we need to be high-risk, high-gain.”
The EIC should seek out and reward “market-creating innovation”, which requires researchers and businesses to come out of their “silos” to work together at the “intersection”.
The Portuguese Commissioner said EIC money should only be awarded after meeting the people behind proposals. “I’ve been looking at all our programmes and something we’re not doing is getting personal contact with teams,” Moedas said. “We don’t interview teams, as a VC firm would. And any VC will tell you – meeting people is more important than the ideas.”
Moedas hopes the EIC can attract start-ups which before might never have thought twice about seeking EU funding. Speaking about a visit to Berlin's Rocket Internet start-up factory, he said, “I asked them why don’t you come to the EU for funding? They said: we need speed.”
“We have to get much better at branding ourselves to those people; it’s like we’re not talking exactly the same language [at the moment],” said Moedas .
The Commissioner hopes to see EIC grants recognised as a badge of excellence. Winning EU funding should be something people crow about more, said the Commissioner. “I met people in South Africa bragging about having a grant from the US. I feel they don’t brag about us enough,” he said.
He dismissed the suggestion that the EIC should emulate the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the government agency responsible for some big breakthroughs in the past, saying, “I think we can do better than [that] and make something truly bottom up. You see a lot of American scientists who want to be a part for the European Research Council. I would like innovators around the world to find the EIC and say, ‘oh this is a little bit different’.”
The EIC should also have could also carve out an advisory function, with Moedas suggesting it could import the ‘green deals’ scheme from the Netherlands, which gets businesses and regulators around a table to discuss what rules are holding up emerging technologies.
Often it is a perception of red tape that is blocking innovation. “I say to businesses: give me one example of what’s impairing you – and very few can do that,” said Moedas. “In 70 per cent of the cases in the Netherlands, it was not legislation that was [the stumbling block], it was the perception of the regulation. So maybe we can communicate better.”
The Commissioner is open to other ideas and launched a public consultation running until 29 April, to seek views.
The argument for EIC is good, said Christian Ehler, German centre-right MEP told the meeting. “I really want to back the Commissioner on this,” he said. “It’s something dramatically new.”
Moedas has said he wants to create a prestigious twin to the EU’s European Research Council (ERC), which provides generous money to scientists working on any basic research subject in Europe.
The ERC has won popularity with researchers by keeping red tape low. It is also easy to understand what its aims are, said GE's Director of EU Funding, Chris Haenen. “The great thing about the ERC website – two or three clicks and you understand everything.” On the contrary, “In the Horizon 2020 [website], you need to go maybe ten pages deep.”
Haenen endorsed the idea of making a fresh appeal to newcomers and speeding up the EU grant process. “Programmes primarily reward today’s winners, after processes which tend to be very lengthy. Optimistically, there’s a 12 months’ timeline.”
Ehler would like to see the EIC put a spotlight on unacknowledged talent in Europe. “We could run an innovation prize – we would highlight [innovators], give them money and public appreciation,” he said.
Haenen agreed saying, “I think we should celebrate in Europe a lot more. We tend to victimise and talk ourselves down.”
Meanwhile Detlef Günther, vice president of research and corporate relations with ETH Zurich, suggested Moedas look at his university’s entrepreneurial lab for inspiration.
“We give entrepreneurs money for 18 months and we don’t tell them what to spend it on,” said Günther. “We don’t say, for instance, you have to pay out this much to salaries. There’s trust. Mentors look in on the project after a certain point and tell entrepreneurs [when appropriate] to speed up or risk losing the money.”
Tuula Teeri, President of Finland’s Aalto University, is backing the idea of having “serial entrepreneurs who have failed and succeeded” in charge of EIC grants. There is an attitude sometimes in Europe that more money will get better results, she said. “Yes, money is going to help but it should come with expert advice.”
Moedas addressed a question which has cropped up repeatedly since he made the EIC announcement last year: What does it mean for the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT)? Some have suggested the EIC sounds like its clone.
“It has nothing to do with it,” Moedas replied. “I’ve already talked to [the EIT]. I’m waiting for them to tell me how they can be part of what I’m planning. EIT is a great institution; it’s doing a great job,” he said.
More than seven months after Moedas announced the EIC idea, he is now trying to turn it into something real.
There is plenty to be hashed out – not least the budget – and the full picture probably will not come to light for several months.
A team of four people in the Commission’s research department are overseeing the process of building the EIC concept. In a letter to Director-General Robert-Jan Smits last week, and seen by Science|Business, Moedas called on the team to bunker down and develop a strong concept in the next two months.
Already, there have been several proposals for the EIC circulated through a leaked Commission memo. Moedas confirmed he has not set his sights firmly on any one of them.
The eventual plan is to develop a pilot to coincide with Horizon 2020's midterm review, a time when the Commission can change course on parts of the research programme.
Before that, Moedas wants a hard proposal in hand so as he can sell the EIC at the European research minister Competitiveness Council meeting in May.