22 Nov 2018   |   Network Updates   |   Update from Fraunhofer
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Technology trends: How RTOs see the opportunities and challenges for Europe

At the RTO Innovation Summit in Brussels 6-7 November, top technology experts discussed the future direction of their fields – and how Europe can benefit


The Research and Technology Organisation is a remarkable European model for bringing ideas to market. RTOs are specialised R&D institutions that solve technical problems and develop new products and services for industry, government and others.

On November 7th, 10 of Europe’s biggest RTOs came together in Brussels at a two-day conference, hosted by Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, to compare notes on major technology trends and discuss the role of RTOs and the European Union. What follows is a summary of the main conclusions the group drew in a series of workshops focusing on five topic “clusters”.

Cluster 1: Climate, Energy and Mobility

Smart (Urban) Mobility

Tomorrow's mobility of persons and goods will look different from today’s which means that we need to cope with infrastructure from the 20th century and requirements from the 21st century. The biggest challenge will be to decrease CO2 emissions by 54% until 2050 whereas at the same time emissions from transport are expected to increase by around 70%. Truly new mobility concepts are needed that do not just replace individual technologies but also include electrification from sustainable sources and data protection as a priority. An important question in this regard is how to define the word “smart”: Is it about efficiency, connectivity, quality of life or sustainability?

RTOs play an important role by developing solutions such as autonomous driving, electrification, and transport concepts, but also in evaluating them from a life cycle perspective. Nevertheless, it is also a question of the right framework conditions as most companies and customers will opt for cheaper solutions where sustainable solutions and products are more expensive than non-sustainable ones.

Renewable Energy & Storage

Europe is in an energy and climate transition towards a zero emission society which at the same time provides an immense opportunity when we look at the innovation system perspective. There is great awareness of the upcoming challenges such as future energy grids, standards and protocols for flexible, industrial demand side services, and a stronger integration of energy system analysis across sectors.

Efforts for handling these challenges are being made both among industrial stakeholders and researchers – RTOs serve here as mediator between science and industry and contribute strongly to the transition themselves. However, Europe must ramp up energy R&I and secure key technology assets to ensure the transition, capitalise on investments, and to take full advantage of some of the world’s largest business themes such as energy efficiency and clean energy.

De-Carbonisation of industrial processes

A major hurdle with the necessary de-carbonisation of Europe's industries is that companies face global competition and large, risky investments. Different industrial sectors such as steel, oil, chemical & bio-based, paper & pulp, cement & lime and glass & ceramics as well as companies integrating renewable energies into their industrial processes are all facing similar challenges.

During the session, approaches to both avoiding and using CO2 were presented by the RTOs. However, the panelists agreed that in order to demonstrate the ability of those advanced technologies to be economically and ecologically viable and thus, to overcome the technological and commercial valley of death, a synergetic, powerful support for European industry and research is still necessary. Both large-scale industrial demonstration projects that can deliver significant emission reductions within 5-10 years and smaller projects for broader impact across the EU are needed. The large-scale projects should showcase the implementation of innovative technologies and demonstrate the business case to operate such low carbon industrial processes in the long-run. Industrial innovation in low-carbon technologies and processes in energy intensive sectors such as steel or cement offer the highest potential to deliver deep emission cuts.

Cluster 2: Digital and Industry

Smart Manufacturing

In future, innovation will be tremendously facilitated by collaboration in trusted networks with stakeholders from all along the value chain. Smart Manufacturing sees that trend emerging in all three focus areas: Additive Manufacturing, Artificial Intelligence & Sensing and Machine-Human-Interaction. The constant feedback loop from real object to digital twin and back will allow real-time adjustment and optimisation with major cost savings and productivity gains. Improved sensing technologies will multiply the amount of available data and greatly enhance the scope of AI in Smart Manufacturing. There lies a huge economic potential in Smart Manufacturing technologies for assistance on the shop-floor level; but to realise the profit, industry will have to invest also in professional education and strategic skill management of its blue- and white-collar workforce.


Robotics bridges the gap between the digital and the real/physical world. In the near future, robots will play an important role in more areas than only Manufacturing: Healthcare, Agri-Food, Maintenance & Inspection of Infrastructure, and Agile Production will be key applications for robotics. Robots will work alongside human beings in their professional and private environment and help them with their daily tasks. The structural change in the way we act, behave, and collaborate with machines has to be accompanied by a change management process to enhance acceptance and technology adoption. In the field of robotics, RTOs work already closely aligned with industry and create real impact through technology transfer. Europe can leverage today’s excellence in robotics by investing in partnerships and collaboration for innovation.

Artificial Intelligence & Cognitive Systems

The global race for leadership in AI is not decided yet. Especially in the industrial realm, Europe has a competitive advantage with its strong industrial base and its excellent R&I landscape. The US have lost their knowledge due to massive de-industrialisation in the last decades and China is not on the European level yet. That gives Europe a window of opportunity to invest in AI and tackle the imminent challenges. We have to find answers to open ethical question about Human Responsibility, Human Prejudice, and Human Understanding. The availability of big data, affordable HPC, open source software and deep learning systems allows the next breakthrough leap in AI – let’s seize the chance to formulate the necessary European regulation and accelerate the technological progress.

Cluster 3: Food and natural resources

Circular Systems

After 200 years of linear economy, circular systems comprise a new concept which includes circular economy and society and stakeholders. Waste is a resource – plastic was highlighted as one important example that it is still much needed for our modern society, but new processes are to be developed to re-use it. The world has to reduce resources by 50% from 2018 to 2030. Europe is the leader in the world in this domain, therefore further investment into research and development including new business models and enhanced cooperation with industry and the engagement of society are mandatory to keep this position. Key challenges are to lay the scientific foundations, generate know-how and create system services and structures that will open up ways to a knowledge-based circular system for society and industry.

Food Systems

The world population is growing ever faster, therefore innovative new food production is necessary. This comprises high-quality, healthy and convenient foods and ingredients, safe, customer-friendly and recyclable packaging and materials, smart farming concepts, optimised machinery, equipment and processes, as well as innovative cleaning technologies, holistic sensory optimisation of raw materials and market-ready products and innovative recycling technologies, bio-based additives and environmental analysis. Novel food production techniques could include personalised food, enhancing the health of elderly consumers by using 3D printing.  Key barriers to innovation are lack of finance. An intensified collaboration with international research, development and innovation oriented organisations is required urgently to compete with other regions in the world.

Biological Transformation of Industry

Biological transformation means the increasing utilisation of materials, structures and processes of living nature in technologies with the goal of sustainable added value, thus going far beyond the concept of Bioeconomy. The 2018 Nobel Prize award for Directed Evolution and Phage Display is a contribution to foster the biological transformation. Further examples were given on bioressources (e.g. grass as source for proteins) from field to products, development of novel functional proteins and bioactive ingredients from rapeseed, olive, tomato and citrus fruit side streams for applications in food, cosmetics, pet food and adhesives. The enormous potential of microalgae production even possible under Nordic climate conditions and without arable land to feed the growing population including livestock needs further research into upscaling processes. Key challenges are value added processing of biomass, cascading utilization and connecting the sectors and companies.

Cluster 4: Cluster Inclusive and secure society

Social Innovation

For innovations to be adopted and to realise their full potential, social needs and behaviours are often more important than just economic, political or technological aspects. We need to make sure that those affected by a technological innovation are much more involved in the innovation process. Social innovation becomes more and more important for RTOs.

Security and Protection

Within the area of security we need to facilitate and enhance the uptake of project results in the public domain – for instance for our police or fire brigade. Under Horizon Europe the systematic end-user involvement was an important step. Now we need to build on this and involve those who procure and those who take management decisions in a more effective way. This requires incentives and that security policy go hand in hand with research.


Until now cybersecurity mostly focused on making closed systems and separate components more secure. We need a paradigm shift which has 2 dimensions:

1) Europe should research security for large systems – from their individual components all the way up to their interaction within comprehensive security solutions.

2) And we should focus on cyber resilience – meaning rather than only increasing security we need to research how to manage the damages and get our systems up and running as fast as possible.

Cluster 5: Health

Digital solutions for health and care

The digitisation of healthcare system holds great potential for the future, especially in providing better individual and cost-intelligent care. One of the major challenges is the accessibility of data. Personal health management, as an example, requires more and more data. Information can no longer be used so easily because data is produced and managed by different healthcare providers, government agencies and citizens themselves, making it difficult to search for and reuse data.

Tools and technologies for Health & Care

Medtech is a strategic sector for Europe covering a broad range of tools and technologies for health and care.  Accelerating the digitisation and market access of Emerging Technologies for Healthcare is a major challenge - and RTOs have a pivotal role to play. Smart health technologies heavily depend on multi Key Enabling Technologies (KETs), especially digital technologies. It’s the genetic background of RTOs to develop multi-KETs approaches for the benefit of industry.  Market access of innovation in health tech should be envisaged from the early preclinical proofs of concept. RTO expertise comprises several application sectors to support companies, big or small, all along the value chain. 

The issue of data protection in e-health is another big issue that needs to be solved before we can unlock the enormous potential of e-health. Patients and healthcare professionals alike need to trust the confidentiality of digital healthcare systems. The trust in digital health care will be paramount for a wider acceptance in the public.

EXTRA Topic: European Technology Infrastructures for applied research and industrial innovation

Technology infrastructures are the backbone for European innovation and competitiveness. As open environments they link together all parts of the innovation system, such as industry, academia, business developers and SMEs. Technology infrastructures give SMEs access to state-of-the-art facilities and testbeds, and in extension engagement with larger companies. The panelists concluded that Europe needs a strategic approach to utilise the full potential of its technology infrastructures. The cross-border knowledge transfer between tech infrastructures needs to be coordinated and intensified. Access needs to be given to SMEs in regions that do not have adequate tech facilities or infrastructures for SMEs. Such a scheme should be coordinated in a European collaborative manner.


Rapporteurs: Verena Fennemann, Julia Schmalenberg, Dr. Johanna Leissner, Christopher Frieling and Cathérine Steelant.

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