The Ecosystem: European Universities alliances put start-ups on the curriculum

30 Aug 2022 | News

A few pioneering European Universities alliances are branching out from their education mission to support entrepreneurship and innovation.

Bright ideas and prototypes: the second Student Demo Day, organised by the EUt+ alliance in Riga in June.

The European Universities initiative was conceived to develop higher education across the EU, with a tight focus on students and teaching. Higher education institutions from different countries were invited to form alliances and bid for Erasmus + funds to develop joint curricula and boost mobility. But innovation and entrepreneurship increasingly appear in the alliance playbook, particularly when the partners are close to the market.

For E³UDRES², an alliance made up of smaller regional universities of applied sciences (listed at the foot of the article), it was natural to include innovation and entrepreneurship in its programme. “As universities dealing with professional and higher education, we are already closer to the market and hopefully also closer to society, which is why innovation plays a crucial role for us,” said Hannes Raffaseder of St Pölten University of Applied Sciences in Austria, lead coordinator of the alliance.

Others see it as a logical extension of an alliance’s education mission. “Entrepreneurship and innovation are a big part of education today, because they allow students to be more open-minded, to find value propositions in any environment or context they might be in,” said Antonia Christou of the Cyprus University of Technology, who coordinates Inno-EUt+, an innovation and entrepreneurship programme for the European University of Technology (EUt+) alliance.

After three funding rounds, there are now 44 European Universities alliances, involving around 340 higher education institutions from across the EU, and in Iceland, Norway, Serbia and Turkey. The Commission’s ambition is to reach 60 alliances by mid-2024.

Planting seeds of entrepreneurship

The EUt+ alliance developed its Inno-EUt+ programme with a two-year grant from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) HEI Initiative, which supports innovation capacity building in the sector. The goal of Inno-EUt+ is to increase the entrepreneurial capacity of the universities, and so develop a more entrepreneurial mindset among students, encouraging them to consider starting a company as a career option.

“The idea is to plant some seeds and hopefully see some of them grow into start-ups in several years time,” said Christou. Practical expertise and experience of the start-up development process is provided by two accelerators attached to the programme, Chrysalis LEAP in Cyprus and Stichting Water Alliance in the Netherlands.

The first step is to inspire the students. Initiatives to date include an entrepreneurship summer school that brought over 30 students from the alliance members to Cluj-Napoca in July, and a series of student demo days, where teams from each university present a business idea along with a prototype.

This autumn will see hackathons run across the alliance. One format focuses addressing specific problems, while another, the Launch Game, puts teams through the first two years in the life of a start-up.

Meanwhile, a pool of trainers has been created across the alliance who are able to provide entrepreneurship modules for existing courses, run extracurricular entrepreneurship activities, and mentor students who want to take an idea further. This incubation activity draws on the Climate Launchpad competition run by the EIT’s Climate-KIC. “We have used content from Climate Launchpad and adapted it for the educational context,” Christou said.

Complementing this work with students, a scheme has been created for start-ups originating in alliance institutions to be mentored by the two accelerators. This feeds back into the teaching by providing further inspiration and role models for the students.

The final piece of the puzzle will be the creation of a common acceleration services programme for EUt+. “We have the inspirational and educational parts now, but we need to give a little bit more support to those who want to follow through with an idea,” Christou said. This will be open to students and staff.

An advantage of building this entrepreneurship activity across the alliance is that the partners can share resources and learn from one another. “It’s also about the diversity of expertise and teams,” Christou said. “Inclusion is a strong expertise of the alliance, so we have created training on inclusive entrepreneurship. Another focus is prototyping, and we have been able to share good practice on that, and in other subjects.”

Professional interest

The E³UDRES² (Engaged and Entrepreneurial European University as Driver for European Smart and Sustainable Regions) university alliance also used the EIT HEI programme to support its innovation and entrepreneurship activities. The resulting Entrepreneurship and Innovation Network for Smart and Sustainable Regions (EINS) was set up in collaboration with the University Industry Interaction Network, a Dutch consultancy that specialises in university-industry engagement.

Early initiatives included underpinning work on open innovation and entrepreneurship, and on European policies and practices for innovation. This was followed by training, education, coaching and mentoring activities for staff and students, along with initiatives to support connections between research, innovation, and business creation. “We’ve trained quite a number of students and staff, and have supported 12 start-ups so far,” Raffaseder said. The next step will be to establish a pre-incubator and incubator for the alliance.

EINS has also taken steps to network the E³UDRES² innovation ecosystems. “We have established six open innovation hubs, linked to the smart specialisation strategies of our regions and to the assets of our universities,” Raffaseder said. In St Pölten, for example, the hub focuses on  the creative industries and digital media. “That is for our region, but is also connected to all the others. Then there are other hubs on food, digital health, advanced manufacturing, and so on.”

Its latest initiative is an open call for start-ups interested in collaborating with the EINS network, not just from the regions of partner universities, but from anywhere in Europe. What these collaborations will involve remains to be seen.

“We have some ideas, but we also want a process of co-ideation and co-creation,” Raffaseder said. “One of the biggest mistakes is the all-knowing professor or university telling a start-up what it needs. So, we want to find a new way of collaborating with start-ups, wherever they come from.” This first call is open until 12 September, with up to 18 start-ups likely to be selected.

Around the coast

The European University of the Seas (SEA-EU), which began with six medium-sized coastal universities, has taken a slightly different approach. Alongside the education work of the alliance, funded through the original Erasmus + award, it has set up a three-year research collaboration project. Its aim is to create a common research agenda that bolsters research and innovation capacity across the partner universities. This includes measures to develop innovation and entrepreneurship so that the research has social and economic impact.

The first steps included a report on the entrepreneurial potential of the alliance, and an analysis of the patents held within the partner institutions, to bring out areas ripe for commercialisation. Next, a marketplace tool will be created, offering a virtual space for researchers and companies to meet and discuss collaboration. “In future, this may lead to partnerships between researchers and entrepreneurs, which can seek further project funding,” said Laura Martin of the University of Cádiz, who coordinates the reSEArch-EU project.

Meanwhile training in entrepreneurial skills will be provided through a spin-off competence lab. This will have a particular focus on early-stage researchers, helping those looking for alternatives to an academic career. “We hope that this virtual training will provide the skills and capacity for early-stage researchers to better face the challenges of the business world, the market and customers, which are more and more demanding of knowledge to solve societal challenges,” Martin said. And for any researchers inspired to create their own start-ups, there is support from a virtual technology transfer office that acts across the alliance.

This re-imagining of a European Universities alliance as a project equally active in education, research and innovation mirrors a shift in thinking at the European Commission. Announcing the latest funding for alliances in July, it placed an equal weight on all of these activities. But if this is to be the direction of travel, pioneering alliances such as SEA-EU want to be sure that resources will be available for them to finish the job.


“Changing universities, which is the main task in the European Universities alliances, is a long-term enterprise. It cannot be done in just three years,” said Juan Ramón Real, project manager of the reSEArch-EU project. “So this is our concern: will the European institutions continue to support the research aspects of this initiative, in the same way that they have with education?”

E³UDRES² comprises: St Pölten University of Applied Sciences (Austria); Polytechnic Institute of Setúbal (Portugal); Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Sciences (Hungary); UC Leuven-Limburg UAS (Belgium); Politehnica University Timișoara (Romania); Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences (Latvia); and, as associate members, Fulda University of Applied Sciences (Germany) and Saxion University of Applied Sciences (The Netherlands).

EUt+ comprises: Cyprus University of Technology (Cyprus); Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences (Germany); Riga Technical University (Latvia); Technological University Dublin (Ireland); Technical University of Sofia (Bulgaria); Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (Spain); Université de technologie de Troyes (France); Universitatea Tehnică din Cluj-Napoca (Romania).

SEA-EU was started by: University of Cádiz (Spain); Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest (France); University of Kiel (Germany); University of Gdańsk (Poland); University of Split (Croatia); University of Malta (Malta). University of Nord (Norway), University of Algarve (Portugal), and University of Naples (Italy) have recently joined the alliance.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem…

  • The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) has renewed the funding for its health knowledge and innovation community, EIT Health. A positive review of its first seven years was accompanied with some notes for improvement, for example in how EIT Health measures impact and on some of its governance processes. EIT funding will continue for a further seven years, after which EIT Health is expected to become financially independent.
  • Danish cybersecurity start-up Muninn has closed a €2.5 million seed round on the back of rising demand for its AI-driven threat detection services. “We’ve tripled our revenue in just six months and expect to triple it again in the next 12,” said co-founder Andreas Wehowsky, an MIT computer science graduate who built his experience leading a national cyber defence project at the Danish Defence Intelligence Service. The cash will open a recruitment drive, allowing Muninn to strengthen its product while accelerating growth. “We are attracting PhDs, post-docs and students from elite, global universities, and strongly believe in the collaboration between academia and our business,” Wehowsky said.

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