Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Five years on: a look at what the Innovation Union has achieved



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Sue Montgomery digs into the findings of the European Commission’s recently published State of the Innovation Union 2015 report to assess the initiative’s progress 

Innovation Union

The Innovation Union (IU) was launched in 2010 as one of the seven flagship initiatives of the Europe 2020 strategy to create a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy – laying out a comprehensive innovation approach for Europe for the first time.

An innovation emergency

According to the European Commission (EC), Europe is facing an ‘innovation emergency’ – partially due to the exodus of thousands of top researchers and innovators in search of countries where the Research and Development (R&D) environment is more favourable. In Europe, a fragmented innovation landscape plus low R&D spending have resulted in an innovation lag that is enabling countries like China and South Korea to gain competitive ground.

As the EC notes: ‘We need to do much better at turning our research into new and better services and products if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace and improve quality of life in Europe.’ In response to this need, the Innovation Union was launched ‘to build on Europe’s strengths and address its weaknesses with respect to innovation and thereby make Europe more competitive in times of budgetary constraints, demographic change and increased global competition’.

In his introduction to the report, Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General of the EC’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, explains that although much progress has been made since the Innovation Union’s launch, changes in the global landscape require continued improvements if Europe is to maintain a competitive position on the world stage. The report assesses such progress in the context of the Innovation Union’s six building blocks:

  • Strengthening the knowledge base and reducing fragmentation
  • Getting good ideas to market
  • Maximising social and territorial cohesion
  • Pooling forces to achieve breakthroughs: European Innovation Partnerships
  • Leveraging our policies externally
  • Making it happen

To deliver on each of these, the IU made 34 specific commitments for action. Although specific measures have been taken on each, the report notes that the response has been inconsistent among member states – largely due to regional bureaucratic and legislative issues. Within each of the six blocks, we’ll touch on one major achievement and dig a little deeper into the specifics involved. Further details are available in the full report.

Strengthening the knowledge base and reducing fragmentation

Together, the implementation of the European Research Area (ERA) and the launch of Horizon 2020 are viewed as major achievements within this block. The ERA is ‘a unified area open to the world, in which scientific knowledge, technology and researchers circulate freely’. Horizon 2020 is ‘the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme with nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment this money will attract’.

On top of the progress that’s already been made, stakeholders surveyed cited a need for ‘further streamlining and simplification’ and more activities ‘dedicated to Open Science and Open Innovation, including better framework conditions relating to IP, data protection and data-driven innovation’. I contacted Dr Thomas Crouzier, who I interviewed recently for my series on Open Science, to get his perspectives on these needs.

Dr Thomas Crouzier

Dr Thomas Crouzier

Dr Crouzier is Assistant Professor at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and author of Science Ecosystem 2.0: How will Change Occur?, an EC report on Open Science. Here’s what he had to say: ‘I think the European Commission recognises that although Europe generates a constant flux of high-quality science and technological findings, the impact on our industry and economy is limited. It is also aware that to attract financial support, it needs to stimulate new approaches to science to maximise return on investment in terms of societal and economical value.

‘I believe the EC has the responsibility for providing a framework that facilitates the bottom-up development of Open Science and Open Innovation. For instance, that includes talking about copyright issues as well as digital infrastructures (what they call the European Open Science Cloud) to allow this new data-intensive research to be performed freely and openly throughout Europe and the world.’

Getting good ideas to market

Easier access to finance is a key achievement in this area, including the creation of reinforced debt and equity facilities, and the European venture capital passport (see my previous article, 4 Key Strategies for Unleashing Medtech Innovation, which provides an overview of the IU’s specific section on access to risk finance. The State of the Innovation Union 2015 report notes that Horizon 2020’s specific section on access to risk finance is implemented through the InnovFin – EU Finance for Innovators initiative and that, by the report’s publication date, 34 European venture capital funds had been established. The combined public-private funding model is being perceived positively, as these innovators and investors note:

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Maximising social and territorial cohesion

In this block, the ‘deployment of strategies and tools that promote convergence across European regions in terms of innovation performance’ is cited as a major achievement. An example of this is the European Social Innovation Competition, which attracted more than 1,400 applications from all over Europe in 2014. The 2016 theme of ‘integrated futures’ focuses on ‘innovations in products, technologies, services and models that can support the integration of refugees and migrants’. By the April closing date, 1,095 applications had been received.

Pooling forces to achieve breakthroughs/European Innovation Partnerships

A key achievement in this block is that European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs) were launched in five areas: active and healthy ageing, water, agricultural productivity and sustainability, raw materials and smart cities and communities. The Innovation Union says that European Innovation Partnerships ‘act across the whole research and innovation chain, bringing together all relevant actors at EU, national and regional levels in order to: (i) step up research and development efforts; (ii) co-ordinate investments in demonstration and pilots; (iii) anticipate and fast-track any necessary regulation and standards; and (iv) mobilise “demand” in particular through better co-ordinated public procurement to ensure that any breakthroughs are quickly brought to market. Rather than taking the above steps independently, as is currently the case, the aim of the EIPs is to design and implement them in parallel to cut lead times.’

Here, a variety of experts and stakeholders in the Active and Health Ageing EIP share their perspectives on the value of this collaboration model:

Leveraging our policies externally

In this block, progress in developing ‘roadmaps for international co-operation’ is cited as a key achievement, including offering study and work opportunities to ‘third countries’ nationals, who can in return enrich our continent’s research and innovation system with new ideas and perspectives’. The creation of the Scientific Visa is viewed as a key success in this framework.

Ireland is one EU member state that has touted the success of the Scientific Visa. According to the authors of Attracting Researchers to Ireland: the Impact of the Scientific Visa: ‘From the experience in Ireland, it is clear that Europe’s Scientific Visa and the Euraxess services can solve most of the problems regarding entry of foreign researchers into European research institutions and companies. Fast-track immigration is an important consideration for internationally mobile researchers and helps to attract the best global talent to Europe.’

Making it happen

In this final block, one key achievement has been the development of self-assessment tools, such as the Union Scoreboard (IUS) – also known as the European Innovation Scoreboards – which help member states by providing ‘a comparative assessment of research and innovation performance in Europe’.

The 2015 results are captured in the infographic below, and there’s an IUS Interactive Tool available online that provides further details of country and comparative profiles. According to the 2015 IUS, Sweden was the European innovation leader in 2015, followed by Denmark, Finland and Germany. Compared to 2014, innovation performance increased in 15 EU countries, but declined in 13 others. Overall, innovation in the EU was determined to have remained stable. The fragmented nature of the continent’s innovation landscape is reflected in the diversity of results across member states and the ongoing need to grow a more collaborative framework to catalyse innovation more equitably across the region.

Innovation Union

About the author

Sue Montgomery has been a registered nurse for thirty-one years in various settings and roles—from staff nurse to administrator in critical care, hospice, and the health insurance industry. She's been involved with digital health for over 20 years. As a communications consultant, Sue writes, edits and develops content products in a variety of formats to support client needs for training, education, and content marketing. In addition, with her end-of-life expertise, she helps to train healthcare professionals to engage in difficult discussions with patients and families about end-of-life issues, advance directives, and end-of-life care.

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