The EU has made significant investments in research infrastructures. It now needs more and better technology infrastructures, to help innovations reach the market and scale up, say experts
The EU should invest more in technology infrastructures to help scale-up European innovations, providing resources such as testbeds for nanocomposite materials and 3D printing equipment that will help industry to commercialise new products and services, according to speakers at the annual conference of the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO).
“I think it’s time now that we say Horizon Europe needs to fund technology infrastructure at the same level [that] we are funding research infrastructures,” said Pia Sandvik, CEO of RISE, Sweden’s research institute.
Large-scale, open technology infrastructures could be a potential antidote to Europe’s translation and scale-up issues. Scaling up is “Europe’s Achilles’ heel,” said Antti Vasara, president of EARTO.
Anna Panagopoulou, acting director for research and innovation outreach at DG Research, said taken together, technology and research infrastructures, “can provide a continuum of services across the entire knowledge creation and value chain.”
The Commission is working on a potential governance structures for technology infrastructures and on prioritising access through the new European Research Area policies.
“We really welcome that the Commission wants to establish a new governance structure for this,” said Sandvik. “We had it for research infrastructures for ages. It’s time for technology infrastructures now.”
This goes hand in hand with the EU’s new industrial strategy, the latest push to create the European Research Area and with future data policies. “We have to bring [these policies] together,” said Panagopoulou. “In the middle of that, we can see a new strategic role for technology infrastructures.”
Currently, there is little long-term EU funding for technology infrastructures. The Commission finances their conception, construction and upgrading, but not long-term operational costs.
Between 2014 and 2020, around €16 billion was allocated to constructing and upgrading research infrastructures from the EU regional funds, with some of the money going towards technology infrastructures. The rest of the funding comes from national and regional funding bodies.
Operational costs are often shared by industry as payment for using the resources. But Sandvik says industry contributions must be combined with stable long term investments to ensure sufficient funding. This would also allow the infrastructures to take more risks in upgrading the resources.
When it comes to the EU sharing running costs, Panagopoulou said, “I think this is the debate that we will have in the years to come, whether this is something we would consider, or whether there would be more innovative ways, funding instruments to do that.”
Fast and smart
Funding is important, but the EU also has to act faster and be strategic about building technology infrastructures, with Josef Wuensch, chair of the SusChem Board, the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry, saying sluggish EU bureaucracy impedes progress.
Applying for a grant takes about a year on average, according to a SusChem study. At that rate, without emergency procedures, if the German biotech BioNTech had applied for a grant to develop its COVID-19 vaccine in the early days of the pandemic, it would only be starting the research now, Wuensch said.
Sandvik said Europe needs to be faster in two aspects: developing technologies and making investments. Sweden, for example, recently started constructing an electromobility test centre as part of project that aims to create a European value chain for batteries.
Launching the project took years. Plus, it has taken the country two years to scramble together €56.5 million and start construction. During that time, China built three such centres. “We really need to be faster,” said Sandvik.
But before Europe starts putting more money into technology infrastructures, it needs a plan, along the lines of that drawn up for research by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, Panagopoulou said. “We first need to map what we have, how we can bring existing technology infrastructures in a cluster approach to work together and to make them provide services in concrete priority areas.”
Wuensch called on counterparts to help. As a first step towards a systematic approach, SusChem recommends establishing clusters of technology organisations that boast similar or complementary capabilities, which could create pan-European networks of infrastructures.