The Commission’s new European Innovation Council (EIC) will aim to turn research investments into innovation and societal impact. It will require universities to take on a new role in tackling societal challenges and to grasp business opportunities for Europe.

During the recent Innovative Enterprise Week in Bucharest, I had the privilege of moderating a panel session on “Bridging the Innovation Gap”, which focused on transforming scientific results into concrete innovation opportunities.

Finding new ways to bring research to market

The EIC has been proposed as part of the next European framework programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon Europe. The idea is, simply, to direct basic research towards new and radical technological breakthroughs that in turn can be the basis for new innovations on the market. The budget of up to €10 billion proposed for the EIC by the Commission illustrates the scale of its ambition to make a difference.
One way to look at the EIC is as a family of funding instruments: the two major ones are the Pathfinder, aimed at researchers with ideas for radical technological breakthroughs, and the Accelerator, aimed at start-ups and entrepreneurs scaling up high-risk innovations. I believe it really will help to transform scientific results into concrete innovation opportunities. The objective of the panel session in Bucharest was to give hands-on and practical recommendations to the European Commission on how to further develop the Pathfinder and its bridge to Accelerator. I think that we made some very important points - take a look at our event report for more information.

A potential new role for universities

What I like most about the EIC concept is how it could lead to a potential new role for universities in society. A central tenet of the EIC is that scientific results can have a societal impact in other ways than via the traditional mechanisms of education and technology transfer. I view the Pathfinder as an invitation to university researchers to open up and use their extraordinary visionary capacity to contribute to the creation of value for society from the early stages of research onwards.
One key driver behind this is the IPCC report on global warming published in October last year, which suggests that our current fossil fuel-driven economy can last only ten more years. Since time is so short, we cannot rely on education being the only way for universities to make a difference to society. Clearly, we need also other ways to turn university research into innovation and impact, especially as climate change is not the only challenge we are facing. We also have the rapid decline of biodiversity, widely dispersed micro and nano plastic materials, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to mention just a few. The key question is how we can find a role for neutral, independent and high-integrity universities that direct their research towards these challenges in a way that allows for innovation and entrepreneurial opportunities.

The EIC gives a glimpse of a solution that can shape our thinking in three specific areas:
•    turning societal challenges into business opportunities
•    bridging the gap between research and innovation
•    creating extensive business value and contributing to solving societal challenges at the same time.

I encourage research and innovation policy-makers to devote substantial time and effort to these questions and, in my new role as member of the EIC Advisory Board, I hope to be able to contribute as well. The Bucharest event helped me see a brighter future for Europe. The European Commission has made a timely decision to launch the EIC and to address Europe’s challenges from a completely new stance. I am convinced that Europe can take the lead in getting research closer to innovation, achieving a stronger societal impact from research. This is really worth striving for, and we can all be winners if we succeed.

You can read more about the EIC Pathfinder in this blog post.