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SME Conference is perfect platform for change

Jean-Marc NOLLET

The research and innovation small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) Conference under the Belgian presidency will take place in November of this year. This unique event puts SMEs in direct contact with key personnel and Ministers from three EU presidencies - past, present and future. The conference is the ideal platform for SMEs to influence the highest level of EU policymakers and air their views on what improvements can be made to the Framework Programme.

In an exclusive interview, we talk to Jean-Marc Nollet, Walloon Community Minister for Children, Research and Public Service, about this event and what key points must be addressed.

The SME Conference is built around SMEs, from an SME perspective, and will be divided into three stages that cover the complete innovation cycle: from initial idea to implementation and exploitation. Through a roundtable discussion and open debate with policymakers and Ministers from three EU presidencies (Belgium, Spain and Hungary), the event aims to bring some conclusions to the European Council so that changes and improvements can be made.

'The SME Conference is an extremely important moment - both for small enterprises and for the Belgian presidency,' underlines Minister Nollet. 'The main objective of the event is to facilitate the face-to-face meeting of up to 400 stakeholders, each with their own unique experiences of international and regional EU-funded research, to enhance systems and improve procedures.'

Synergy

One of the key points to be raised at the conference is the need to establish a stronger link between research and innovation. Currently, the two are treated as separate entities with research handled through the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and innovation through the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP). This lack of synergy means that once the research stage is complete, an entirely new programme must be approached to gain support and further advance the project.

'Research and innovation go hand in hand and our support programmes must reflect this,' says Minister Nollet. 'We cannot have universities or companies with great results but that cannot do anything with them. A future support programme must encompass the full cycle, from initial research to demonstration and exploitation. We need to take a more comprehensive approach and assure SMEs that support is already in place every step of the way.'

Communication

Information surrounding EU-funded research is bountiful. However, disseminating that information throughout the Member States and support organisations to reach SMEs has been a continual challenge.

'We, as a public authority, have an obligation to make sure that information is better spread and easier for SMEs to assimilate,' says Minister Nollet. 'Multinational companies are aware of and adopt EU initiatives but SMEs find it much harder to do so. We can counteract this through better distribution of information and case studies illustrating SME successes.'

Stability

Many researchers find themselves in unstable situations in terms of career. For example, a project may run for a year but after that time there is no knowing what will happen. 'It's a worry and spreads concern,' says Minister Nollet. 'We need to establish a system where researchers have stable, structured working conditions - even when moving between projects.'

Networks

Networking is synonymous with growth and development. The SME Conference will be a chance for potential partners to meet but also to raise awareness of the networks available to SMEs. 'We support and encourage all good ideas but in order for these ideas to reach the market, the EU and public authorities must provide access to networks,' explains Minister Nollet. 'Networks that facilitate the connection between ideas and markets are crucial for SMEs to progress.'

Encouragement

Increasing competitiveness in Europe is an overarching aim of all Framework Programmes. And SMEs need to realise the immense contribution they can make in helping meet this goal. 'SMEs, due to their nature, need as much encouragement and assistance as possible,' says Minister Nollet. 'They are competing with multinational corporations and sometimes need a little push to realise the potential they can reach.'

Timing

The timing of the SME Conference could not be better. FP7 has just reached the halfway review stage, the Research and Innovation Action Plan will be presented in September and the Competitiveness and European Council will convene in October - all of which will provide the latest information and topics for discussion at the conference.

'The SME conference has real political weight and I expect the outcome to bring real change,' concludes Minister Nollet. 'It will feed directly into the Competitiveness Council in November and explain what can be done for SMEs to contribute even further to the EU's goals for competitiveness and innovation. As a Minister, tomorrow's challenges - renewable energy, reducing carbon emissions - are today's focus. What we and all SMEs must realise is that what we do in the present can truly help us in the future.'

Registration for the SME conference is open from the 25th of June at the following website: www.smeconference2010.be