The Ecosystem: EIT Digital recruits companies to stay ahead of the skills curve

10 Oct 2023 | News

Two scale-ups at the nexus between academia and industry are helping EIT Digital revise its masters’ programmes and keep pace with the fast-moving fields of cybersecurity and robotics

The team at GIM Robotics from Finland. Photo: GIM Robotics

Universities often struggle to keep curricula up to date, particularly when it comes to the skills needed by companies in fast-moving sectors. EIT Digital, the digital community of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, is trying to stay ahead of the curve with the Spectro project, which will update two of its master’s programmes, in cybersecurity and robotics.

In addition to the universities already involved in delivering these programmes, it has drafted in two innovative small companies to help shape the offer and deliver the degrees*. These are cloud security company Cyscale from Romania, and GIM Robotics from Finland. Both are keenly aware of the present skills shortage.

“This project means we can participate in creating the curriculum for future generations of researchers and employees, so that once they get out of university, they have the knowledge they need if they come to work for us,” said Mika Vainio, chief marketing officer of GIM Robotics.

“There is a great supply of people who can implement things, but we need a bit more than that,” said Andrei Stefanie, lead product engineer at Cyscale. “We need someone who can come up with ideas, with a plan to execute them, and who can extract some requirements from the market, informed by what our competitors are doing. Those qualities are a bit harder to find.”

Even students’ appreciation of the challenges involved in designing truly secure cloud systems may be inadequate. “Some of these subjects are taught in universities, but maybe just in one lecture,” says Stefanie. “Students might be aware that these issues exist, but they can’t really engage with them.”

Updating the offer

EIT Digital has a catalogue of seven masters’ programmes, from embedded systems to data science and cloud and network infrastructure to fintech. All will probably need to be upgraded at some point in the future, but it has decided to start with cybersecurity and robotics.

The masters’ are double-degree programmes. Students study for one year at a university in one country, then spend the second at a university in a second country. The aim is to have the maximum contrast between the two years.

“Usually we see a student studying one year in Italy, the second in Finland; one year in France, the second in Romania; one year in Romania, the second in Sweden. So, there is really an exchange of cultures,” said Salvatore Moccia, head of education and skills at EIT Digital.

Students also take a minor in innovation and entrepreneurship, which is intended to create both an entrepreneurial mindset and the skills needed to create a start-up. “When they graduate, they will know how to write a business plan, how to carry out a market analysis and see if the technology they are developing is a good fit,” said Moccia.

This aspect of the course is driven by company internships the students take between the two academic years. “A company can give us a new technology and ask: in which sector should I apply this technology? And the students work on that problem.”

The masters’ programmes already have a good start-up record, with some 20-25% of students across the masters’ offer creating companies. Examples include Chartbrew, an open source business intelligence platform, and charitable donation platform Do More.

The masters’ programmes on robotics and cyber security will be revised through the Spectro project, funded by the EU’s Digital Europe Programme. The first year of the four-year project will be spent analysing market and labour trends in order to select the specialisations to be included in the two masters’ programmes. Some contenders are already apparent.

“For example, we don’t currently have a specialisation in quantum and post-quantum computing in cybersecurity,” said Moccia. “And in robotics, we don’t today have a specialisation in smart autonomous systems for healthcare.”

But these are just initial thoughts. “We will see during the year what the market trends really are, and then we will decide on the final specialisations,” he said.

The module on innovation and entrepreneurship will also be reviewed, although any changes are likely to be less dramatic than in the specialisations. “Leadership and design thinking, for example, do not change as often as technology,” Moccia said. “But the tools that entrepreneurs can use do evolve, and so we will also look at whether what we are doing now is perfectly aligned with developments.”

Industry input

Both companies involved in Spectro come to the project through connections with the universities involved. Cyscale is a rapidly growing cloud security start-up with bases in Romania and the UK. Created in 2019, the company last year closed a $3.5 million seed round, and numbers around 20 staff.

Stefanie was already involved in teaching courses on cloud computing at Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, one of the academic partners, and saw Spectro as a chance to get more involved. “We will be involved in creating some of the courses, providing knowledge and expertise, and we expect to deliver some guest lectures in our specialist areas,” he said. The company will also provide business use-cases for students to work on, and offer placements.

GIM Robotics was founded in 2014 by four of the key figures behind the Automation Technology laboratory at Helsinki University of Technology, which in 2010 became Aalto University. It specialises in the design, R&D and integration of intelligent robotic systems for mobile working machines. It does this in a range of industries, from logistics and transport through to agriculture, forestry, marine and construction. It has grown organically, without external funding, and currently has over 40 people on staff.

It became involved in Spectro through its close links with Aalto University, and its involvement in EIT Digital. “We have a strong academic background, but also 10 years now of real-world experience, so we can see the capabilities that robotic engineers need for the future, and how to teach them,” said Vainio. The company will help Aalto University create the planned courses, offer students internships, and help find similar places in its network.

The companies see placements as an important part of the skills development process. “Working in companies that specialise in the domain of the masters programme will help students understand precisely what is involved, and that will help a great deal,” Stefanie said.

“It’s also important that courses include real-world exercises and work with physical machines rather than just simulators and paper exercises,” said Vainio. “You need to engage with real, physical machines to learn these things.”

The same goes for the entrepreneurship aspects of the programmes. “In a smaller company, with five or ten people, you will touch on a lot of aspects of the business, not just the writing code or other things required by your role,” said Stefanie.

The courses should also help students to appreciate that there is a difference between academic exercises and working in a company. “You need to have the theory, but when you go to the other side of the fence you need different skills and you need to focus on getting products to the market,” Vainio said. This involves understanding the way teams work in a company setting, for example, but also that there is a big difference between a research device and commercial prototype.

“Although you are able to make a pilot or proof-of-concept machine move and localise itself, this is not the same as creating similar functionalities for a real working machine, which a major company would accept as part of its future product line,” Vainio said. “There’s a huge gap, and it is good that students understand this and prepare for it.”

Once Spectro has completed its review, the revised masters’ programmes will become part of EIT Digital’s educational catalogue. The project will also produce a series of self-standing modules that other universities can use to teach in these areas, from basic to advanced topics.

“Some of those self-standing modules will be offered for free to the general public, for people who are looking to reskill or upskill,” said Moccia. This is an area in which EIT Digital expects to be increasingly active. “We are making an effort to open more and more to upskilling and reskilling, and we are also designing some short programmes for the general public, in cooperation with our universities.”

*The Spectro consortium members are: Eötvös Loránd University; University of Trento; University of Twente; University of Rennes; University of Turku; EURECOM; Babeș-Bolyai University; KTH Royal Institute of Technology; Aalto University; University of Bologna; University Côte d'Azur; Budapest University of Technology and Economics; GIM Robotics; and Cyscale.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem…

  • A project that will help national authorities set up supervision systems for artificial intelligence applications in line with the forthcoming EU AI Act has begun in the Netherlands. It brings together UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector, the European Commission (which is funding the project) and the Dutch Authority for Digital Infrastructure. UNESCO will produce a comprehensive report on the state of play and existing practices of AI supervision in Europe and beyond. It will also develop a series of case studies on AI supervision, produce a set of best practices for dealing with specific cases and issues, and organise training sessions to improve institutional capacity in the Netherlands.
  • The European Patent Office has opened an Observatory on Patents and Technology, which will quantify and explore trends in the innovation ecosystem. The Observatory will develop digital tools, carry out studies and host events in three broad areas: technology intelligence; legal and innovation policy; and diversity and transformation. An inaugural event, on boosting start-ups with intellectual property, will take place on 17 October.
  • AstronauTx, a 2019 spin-off from University College London, has closed a £48 million Series A funding round, which will advance its work on treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and take its lead molecule into clinical trials. The company’s approach involves amplifying the brain’s physiological protective mechanisms, and is based on research funded by the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK at UCL’s Drug Discovery Institute. The round was led by the Novartis Venture Fund.
  • French start-up Mecaware has raised €40 million in investment to implement technology for processing scrap from battery gigafactories. Founded in 2020, the company is commercialising research carried out at the Applied Supramolecular Chemistry Laboratory in Lyon. Its initial plant, which should debut in 2025, will produce 50 tonnes of recycled metal per year, in particular, lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese. The funding was led by Crédit Mutuel Innovation and the French state’s SPI2 fund.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up