Viewpoint: Slovakia needs help to pull its weight in EIC competitions

22 May 2024 | Viewpoint

Deep tech champions from Widening countries must first be nurtured within their local ecosystems

Jaroslav Bukovina, head of the policy unit at Slovakia’s research and innovation authority (VAIA)

In early April, the president of the European Innovation Council (EIC) Michiel Scheffer visited Slovakia, where he talked to Slovak innovators and key partners from the public sector about their experience of EIC funding schemes.

The conversation naturally gravitated towards the usual obstacles – and which are openly acknowledged by the EIC - such as a lack of knowledge about the council’s remit and objectives, and unconscious bias in evaluation.

Steps are being taken to address these, including raising awareness about EIC through local partnerships, expanding training availability, and increasing the quality of consultants helping companies navigate the EIC accelerator application process.

EIC could also benefit from increasing the number of evaluators from Widening countries and training evaluators in how to avoid bias.

While such measures are a welcome improvement, they will not be sufficient in countries grappling with structural challenges such as those faced by Slovakia. Manuel Aleixo, head of the European Research Area and Innovation at the Commission’s research directorate, raised a pertinent question at the Science|Business conference in September 2023: are there no companies in Widening countries capable of or interested in joining the EIC accelerator?

The track record of Slovakia and other Widening countries suggests there is a scarcity of EIC target companies within their ecosystems. Slovakia's structural issues, particularly brain drain, the quality of its universities in comparison to international peers, and a shortage of entrepreneurial skills, mean there are few high-quality, innovative, breakthrough projects.

Another structural challenge is the non-existence of resources in the incubation or pre-seed phase of company formation and development. Local ecosystems are under-developed and do not generate sufficient private funding, with one factor being a lack of successful exits, which means there is little capital circulating back to new projects.

High-quality mentoring

The quality and quantity of domestic incubators and accelerators is insufficient due to a lack of support from private donors, the shortage of high-quality mentoring and the lack of long-term funding, or of public funding, in this area.

If the EIC wants to increase the participation of companies from Widening countries, a hands-on approach is imperative. These companies will need to be nurtured directly within local ecosystems.

One suggestion would be to establish local EIC-certified incubators in several Widening countries. Working in collaboration with local stakeholders, these could aid in fostering specific companies/projects for subsequent participation in the EIC programme and hence increase the innovation effectiveness of the EU as a whole.

The establishment of a local EIC incubator would also yield other indirect benefits for the ecosystem, such as enhancing access to quality know-how and European contacts for VC investors. Moreover, a local branch of the EIC incubator would inherently raise awareness within the ecosystem, which is often lacking in Widening countries today.

Does this seem like a significant undertaking with uncertain outcomes? Maybe. At the Research and Innovation Authority, we recognise that the Slovak start-up scene is still in its early stages and improving the situation will require sustained nurturing of the entire ecosystem.

Placing several "branches" of the EIC incubator within local ecosystems in the Widening countries, supported by other European resources, could provide the catalyst needed for development of domestic ecosystems and the broader region. In the long run, this would benefit the entire EU through a greater number of innovative companies.

Jaroslav Bukovina is head of the policy unit at Slovakia’s research and innovation authority (VAIA).

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