Interview: Martin Kern, EIT Interim Director
Image credit: EIT
Martin Kern has been interim director and COO of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) since August 2014. At the EIT Innovation Forum in Budapest, Hungary, Kern spoke to E&T about the achievements and future of the organisation.
Policymakers often complain that the UK does not drive as much technological innovation as in other regions. Is this a wider, European problem?
I think it’s absolutely a problem that is not just specific to the UK, but it’s an issue for Europe as a whole. Europe is behind in competitiveness with other parts of the world – the US and Asia – and that’s exactly the background on which the EIT was set up: to bring research from universities and [other] research organisations and take their ideas to the market.
How does the EIT help turn research into innovation?
The way the EIT does it maybe is best understood with three dimensions. One is to connect the universities, the businesses and the research organisations because they are in isolation; there is no natural link where the good work of laboratory science can be taken into business. We link them together in communities where they can connect with each other to create much more smooth transitions.
Secondly, we do that not for any type of research product, but for ones to meet societal challenges that Europe faces: energy, climate change, digitalisation, raw materials. We set up innovation communities around those so the specialists in those fields can work together and create a network which adds to what you have nationally. In the UK, for instance, there are programmes supporting business and university cooperation, but that’s local, whereas through the EIT they can connect to others in the field across Europe.
The third one is [that] putting research on the market is not a short-term or coincidental process; it needs a strong ecosystem around it because there can be many reasons why it doesn’t happen, [...] so we have an education program to make sure that, for instance, engineers are also skilled in being entrepreneurial, being creative and thinking in terms of market needs and connecting with customers to have a reality check.
This ecosystem, which now has 1,000 partners and 40 hubs across Europe – some of them in the UK – allows us to address all three dimensions.
What is the purpose of establishing separate EIT ‘innovation communities’?
It is clear we need more products and services to address societal challenges and that is what everyone is working towards. The six innovation communities we have now are climate change, sustainable energy, health, raw materials, food and digitalisation and we’re creating two new ones for urban mobility and manufacturing, which we will announce in December.
An innovation community doesn’t cover the whole challenge – [the climate change innovation community] will not solve climate change by itself! But they pick their focus areas based on what the partners think has the highest innovation potential and that is what they put in their strategy and how they select their partners.
Addressing these challenges takes more than introducing new technology to the market. How else can the EIT help drive change?
It’s absolutely important [that] we don’t just focus on pushing that technology on the market, but also trying to get an impact out of it. Sometimes it needs the force of regulatory action, sometimes it needs awareness. The partners must have a dialogue to decide what to do. The [energy innovation community] is especially good – it has been recognised by the European Commission, which takes its advice because they can get a sounding platform which gives them all the views of business, research and education. EIT is absolutely not a policy-developing platform, but it has a feedback mechanism for the innovation community, because these are the ones on the ground and they know what stops them from succeeding. It’s very important for policymakers to get that feedback.
How is the EIT making plans for departure of the UK from the EU?
It’s difficult to make a plan because we do not know the outcome [of negotiations] and we do not know what the rules will be for funding after Brexit. The innovation communities that have participation in the UK are very much aware of that and are already thinking how that may affect their business, but at this stage we cannot give them any final advice.
What would you like to see the EIT achieve over the next decade?
We would be happy if we could exponentially further growth. We would like to continue to grow in terms of organisations participating – having all of Europe connecting in our ecosystem – and take on some new challenges. Our ideas for potential societal challenges [to focus on] are related to security, migration and inclusion and creative industries, so if we can [begin with] those challenges and continue to have success with existing ones, that would be amazing. We need to bring this social dimension more and more into our work and that is reflected in our plans for the future.