04 Apr 2019   |   News

Fake news? ‘Disruptive innovation’ booster makes waves with funding claim

Joint European Disruptive Initiative announces €3B fund – but then calls it an April Fool’s prank to draw attention to the fake news problem

The April Fool's joke announcement included this image claiming a €3 billion fund for disruptive innovation had just been approved.

In the rush to get R&D money, some pretty wild tactics have been tried over the years. This week, however, a new approach surfaced as a Franco-German entrepreneur announced a €3 billion fund – and then said it was just an April Fool’s joke.

On Monday, the Joint European Disruptive Initiative, or JEDI, an effort by André Loesekrug-Pietri to boost European technology, tweeted and emailed a statement to say it “is excited to announce €3 billion funding from Germany, France, the European Union and several European countries”. It went on to quote glowing statements of support from various government officials – all unnamed.

The press release – issued on April 1st with an “embargo” to 6 PM – caused immediate puzzlement in Brussels, where the European Commission is in the midst of trying to persuade its member states to boost funding for its own tech programmes. A Commission spokeswoman, when asked about it by Science|Business later that day, said the Commission “does not have any formal links or indeed provide any financial support for this initiative.”

But one of Loesekrug-Pietri’s colleagues spoke up. “I’m afraid it was unfortunately a 1st April joke from our good André,” emailed Jean-Paul Paloméros a retired general of the French Air Force and former senior NATO commander who, according to Loesekrug-Pietri, is working with him on JEDI.

Loesekrug-Pietri himself was initially hard to contact (“I am overseas” he said in an SMS) but when reached by WhatsApp on April 4th he confirmed the announcement had been a “poisson d’avril,” or April Fool’s joke. “Of course” it’s a prank, he said, adding rhetorically: “Do you see the European Commission putting €3 billion” into JEDI?

He did it, he said, to draw attention to the need to do something in Europe about fake news, which he wants to tackle via a prize fund “in the range of a million euros” to develop solutions to the problem. He said he doesn’t yet have all the prize money lined up.

“This challenge is a money prize, judged by a scientific committee, and it will put in competition everybody – research centres, universities, start-ups, that can provide tech solutions to debunk fake news.” Since issuing the false news release, he said, his group has received “200 to 300” messages of support from all over. His aim: “to make people understand that Europe should really do something big in this direction, and to see what people are thinking” of in terms of solutions.

Loesekrug-Pietri has been proselytising for nearly two years to raise money for JEDI, which he says will be modelled on DARPA – or US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, famous for funding such tech breakthroughs as the precursor to the Internet. So far, he has yet to raise the billions he originally targeted. But “it’s what we hope to achieve and we will achieve,” he said.

Loesekrug-Pietri’s Linked-In page says he is a founder of Acapital, the sparse website of which says it is “an investor with a passion for impact, for industry and for scaling-up innovative companies.” The bio also says he was a special advisor to the French defense minister for “less than a year” in 2017. 

Since he started the JEDI campaign, use of media has been instrumental – and some flattering profiles about him and JEDI have been published in Le Figaro, Handelsblatt and other newspapers. But while he has said the group has prepared several technology “challenges”, he has yet to announce funding for them. Instead, the group has been organising conferences around Europe. It calls some participants JEDIs, after the knights from the Hollywood “Star Wars” movies. His mission, he says, is to raise Europe’s standing in technology markets, in competition with the US and China.

In the WhatsApp call, Loesekrug-Pietri said the JEDI organisation has a staff of 10, funded partly by a donor.org crowd-funding app on its website. He declined to say how much that has raised. As for the fake news prize money, he also declined to say how much has been raised so far.

“There is a significant amount in hand,” he said. “The list (of donors) is not complete. The money is not at the level we want.” He added: “I will tell you the full story soon.”

If so, he may encounter some hard feelings about the fake news prank. After JEDI tweeted 4th April that it had all been a joke, Nicholas Vinocur, the editor of Politico Pro’s tech newsletter retweeted back: “This is very irresponsible behaviour on the part of an organisation trying to build credibility and support in the EU - not doing much to help their case.”

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