29 Mar 2021   |   News

EIT embarks on mission to help universities

Building on lessons from the pandemic, European Institute of Innovation and Technology launches initiative to help universities become regional innovation engines

A €9 million pilot project run by European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) will test a new approach to boosting the innovation capabilities of universities in the EU, helping them develop relationships with industry and teach innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Innovation Capacity Building for Higher Education pilot call is looking for universities to put forward plans to strengthen their links to business and research organisations; develop services to support translation and commercialisation of academic research; enhance the quality of entrepreneurial education they provide; and generate relevant knowledge and expertise.

The scope of the call is broad, allowing different needs to be accommodated, said Martin Kern, director of EIT.

Consortia of up to three universities and one other organisation are invited to apply. Twenty three selected projects will have six months to draft initial plans and begin implementation. For this phase, the projects will receive up to €400,000. If they are successful, they can move to the next phase and secure another €800,000.

Applications are accepted until 25 May, and the six-month phase one starts in July.

In their applications, consortia must demonstrate that they can make a meaningful contribution to the work of least two of EIT’s Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), and commit to predefined objectives, for example, supporting a minimum of two start-up or scale-up companies, training a minimum 130 students in innovation and entrepreneurship, or training a minimum 12 academic staff.

Kern said the initiative builds on EIT’s experience running a two-week €60 million call for projects tackling the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. Start-ups, scale-ups, and SMEs received funding within a few weeks of applying, allowing them to deliver products and services with no delay. The EIT hopes to replicate this success with universities. “That was the first time this happened. This is following the same logic,” Kern told Science|Business.

But Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, is not convinced EIT’s expectation that universities can create new structures and develop new curricula in a short period of time, is realistic. Targets such as training a certain number of students in entrepreneurship within 18 months may end up being a one-off, rather than fostering permanent change.

However, Palmowski is pleased the scheme is not prescriptive and universities are expected to assess their situation and come up with tailored plans. “I think this is very welcome,” he said. It will allow universities “to start from where they are, based on an assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses.”

The university consortia will be encouraged to learn from one another, but also get help from EIT’s network of KICs. While being evaluated as a group, the aim is to boost the innovation potential of individual institutions.

Following the pilot, EIT is planning to launch a bigger call this autumn.

Open to all

Universities that are not members of the KICs are eligible to participate. Kern said the most important aspect of the new project is “openness beyond the EIT community.” He hopes to attract new members to the KICs.

For Palmowski this is positive move. The KICs have fairly rigid frameworks and there is a huge amount of work when a university is applying to be a member. “This is a way to expand the reach of the EIT,” he said.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities believes the EIT pilot will help fill a gap for universities that do not have effective tech transfer and other innovation support services. “[It] is welcome for many [higher education institutions that] still have to learn and experience a lot in this field.”

However, Deketelaere has his eyes on a bigger prize for universities that have established and functioning innovation systems, in EIT’s new cooperation with the EU start-up fund, the European Innovation Council, which has money to put into start-up companies.

For now, Innovation Capacity Building for Higher Education does not have synergies with other EU programmes or other parts of Horizon Europe, but Kern said links to other programmes will be considered once the pilot projects are complete.

Innovation Capacity Building for Higher Education is the first initiative of EIT to get off the ground since EU policymakers agreed on the agency’s legislation and strategy for the next seven years in January. Part of the new brief is to put more effort into pulling higher education into the innovation ecosystem.

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