In order to be successful, we need to find ways to simplify what we are doing.

The NMWP.NRW state cluster talking to Dr. Barend Verachtert, Head of Unit “Materials for Tomorrow”, DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission, about regional and European innovation funding and innovation hurdles for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Dr. Barend Verachtert, you are the new Head of Unit “Materials for Tomorrow”. The NanoMicroMaterialsPhotonics.NRW state cluster deals with these key enabling technologies (KETs) since over ten years. What do you think is the technological and economical relevance of these topics for the economic future in the European Union?

Key Enabling Technologies of the future include advanced materials and nanotechnology, photonics and micro- and nano-electronics, life science technologies, advanced manufacturing and processing, artificial intelligence and digital security and connectivity – those all-pervasive technologies, which underpin and drive other innovations. For instance, developments in advanced materials and nanotechnologies touch everything from building materials to drug delivery systems. As for the economic relevance, in 2013 KETs were associated with 3.3 million jobs and accounted for €950 billion of EU-28 production. This is estimated to have gone up to €1 trillion in 2015.

But these are just figures. I think we should really go beyond that. We can sell a coating, that’s fine – but the coating is not what you are selling to a consumer. A consumer buys a mobile phone, for example, not the coating of a touch panel. And that is what we need to understand – where the real added value is being generated. In Horizon 2020 we have a clear section for key enabling technologies. In Horizon Europe we will – much more than we used to do in the past – look across the fence, work between sectors and between various priorities – to bring R&D-topics together. When we are talking about key enabling technologies, we are also talking about materials, and they are everywhere. Without KETs and materials, nothing would be happening.

In Horizon Europe, I’m very optimistic about the sort of support we will give to key enabling technologies, although Horizon Europe is application driven. We are very good and strong in turning money into research. In Horizon Europe, we’re turning research into money. Therefore, we have a strong focus on the applications, the technological side and on the industry. The question is: How can we turn this scientific promise into economic reality. But that also means, that we have to engage with our stakeholders. They are in the industry, the SMEs, and of course the research community, without ever forgetting that we are here to serve the European citizens. Because they buy the products. If we come up with products or technologies that they don’t like, we are going to end up nowhere. Our focus is clearly on bringing technology to the market. Of course, new technologies which push advances across multiple sectors are emerging; in Horizon Europe, artificial intelligence, life science technologies and digital security and connectivity will be included as new KETs.

The upcoming NMWP-Magazine deals with R&D infrastructure for companies focussing on key enabling technologies. What do you associate with research infrastructure?

Research infrastructures are vital, often large-scale facilities that enable the scientific community to explore basic research and very early stage technologies. Facilities such as CERN or the Extreme Light Infrastructure are examples of such facilities. However, in my new unit – “Materials for Tomorrow” – we will be primarily supporting technology infrastructures. These are large or small, individual or networked facilities – such as test beds and pilot lines – that are open to industry users, SMEs and anyone else in need to extend their early stage innovations to higher TRLs. Technology infrastructures provide the space for innovations to be demonstrated, validated and up-scaled for faster market access.

What do you think about “pilot production lines”? How important are these for the upscaling of innovative ideas, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises?

We think that pilot production lines are vital for testing new technologies and services, and developing these beyond the proof of concept phase and into the demonstration phase in more relevant environments. SMEs typically lack the capacity for scaling up their innovations and such equipment can be too expensive to procure. Therefore, we welcome the trend of pilot production lines being accessible to those who especially need them. The new concept of open innovation test beds (OITB) aims to encourage this openness by supporting projects to specifically focus on developing sustainable pilot services with regulatory and business guidance in addition to production upscaling.

What significance do the research infrastructure and pilot production lines have, especially for start-ups? Are there other structures that are important for start-ups in the context of R&D?

Access to pilot lines is necessary for those who cannot afford to invest in such infrastructure especially if it is for one-off validations or demonstrations. This is further compounded by the fact that clients sometimes do not know what are the most appropriate solutions to address their challenges. Demonstration and testing facilities, including pilot lines, facilitate that early stage intervention that allows for potential problems to be identified and addressed before they become bigger, costlier issues.

For sure, there are other structures in Europe that have been put in place to help industry – particularly SMEs and start-ups – such as digital innovation hubs, KETs training centres, knowledge and innovation centres (KICs) and open innovation test beds. All of these have their particular focus and objectives. To give SMEs and start-ups guidance in this great variety of opportunities, I’d recommend regional networks and clusters like the NMWP.NRW state cluster to become regional hubs for innovation infrastructure.

Where do you see the biggest needs of SMEs and start-ups in the fields of key enabling technologies? Services? Laboratory space? Industrial manufacturing equipment or similar infrastructure? Pilot production lines?

To answer this, I would like to refer to the challenges in the European Commission’s staff working document on technology infrastructures: visibility, funding, specialized personnel, networking, accessibility and trust building.

From our workshops and surveys, SMEs and start-ups need to be able to have access to spaces that allow them to test their innovative technologies. We hear that such access needs to be timely, i.e. respecting industry timescales, but it also needs to including business-related services in addition to the technical services. Product stewardship, managing intellectual property, managing internal capacity constraints and managing different types of risks, connected to different TRLs – these are the needs that SMEs have voiced to us. However, the issue that comes up most often is the one related to costs and SMEs frequently seek public support in order to afford access.

I think many of the services that we are talking about could be found elsewhere. But possibly, you won’t be able to bring them all together or you can’t afford it. So, it’s “affordable accessibility” of these services that is probably most important. For an SME, visibility is also very important. They need to show themselves to the market. In this case, they get so much more than a service; they get access to an international network. Other partners in the network may become interested in what they do and they get in contact with other companies, clients, and so on.

Another very important service a pilot line can give is trust-building on what the SME has to offer. The technology can be truly validated. It can be shown, not just in lab condition but in industrial conditions, that the technology is performant. It can be cost-effectively upgraded and upscaled. And then, you can get in contact with larger companies and show them what you have to offer.

How intensively are these services used by SMEs and start-ups? What are the optimization potentials for the future?

The first question is difficult to answer exactly, but we see that while these services are always in need of customers, users are also in urgent need of upscaling services. However, they frequently do not know where to look. In the future, greater coordination in all the funding instruments available to SMEs would simplify this landscape. The platform offered by the European Network for Pilot Production facilities (EPPN) will increase the visibility of the services and allow a faster decision-making process for SMEs. EPPN is also working with other Commission services, such as the Digital Innovation Hubs, KETs Observatory and EIT Raw Materials towards the creation of a “common map” where all possible upscaling services may be found.

In addition, the recently created Open Innovation Test Beds will work on offering a complete solution to clients’ upscaling needs. This will further reduce SMEs having to look in multiple places to address the various challenges associated with bringing a product to market.

What do you think about visibility in this context? The classic medium-sized company works a lot and has little time to search for suitable supporting infrastructure. How good is the marketing (and visibility) of common R&D infrastructures? Does the classic SME know who supports in which context?

Visibility is lacking if looking at technology infrastructures across Europe and what they can offer to a local SME. National and regional efforts to help on this are required to complement and support the European efforts such as those mentioned above.

You are right – often, an SME s’ most important concern is the question “How do I survive until tomorrow?”. That is very clear. And on the other hand, there is a world of support measures available. What – also for us – is often difficult to understand is the following: What are the differences, what are the opportunities? Are they identical or are they complementary? I think the key to reach out to SMEs is not to do this from Brussels. An SME in NRW will never hear us. This is one of the challenges for networks like NanoMicroMaterialsPhotonics.NRW, to support the SMEs locally and link them to the corresponding programmes and pilot lines.

Is this also interesting for large companies? Are large companies allowed to use this infrastructure at all?

Large company users are important, for exploiting the full potential of the open innovation technology infrastructures and for keeping on top of the latest technology offered. Many large companies are already outsourcing their research, development and innovation.

What do you think about the mechanisms of promoting the usage of pilot lines by SMEs, for example by awarding vouchers?

Public funding is relevant whenever trying to bring a new technology from laboratory to industrial scale demonstration. This is what the technology infrastructures are doing. Some are already benefiting from grants under our pilot- and OITB calls covering also a number of industrial upscaling demonstrators. Other end-users will follow but many will still be dependent on public funding so a European as well as national scheme would be relevant.

As the new Head of Unit “Materials for tomorrow” – what are your main goals for the future?

My goals mainly relate to the contribution to sustainability and the circular economy as well as the simpler access, supported by the approach of co-creation.

The key to be successful is to try to link between the European level – which has the advantage to create critical impact, to bring resources from different regions together and to have a strong financial backup – and the regional level, which understands the local situation and which knows what the needs and expectations are. The big challenge for us – and I will be working on this within the next couple of years – is to assure, that the rules of the game on local level and on European level are fully compatible. I think in order to be successful; we need to find ways to simplify what we are doing.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Source: NMWP-Magazin

Cluster NMWP.NRW

Der Landescluster NanoMikroWerkstoffePhotonik.NRW handelt im öffentlichen Auftrag mit Sitz in Düsseldorf und entstand 2009 im Rahmen der Exzellenzinitiative der nordrhein-westfälischen Landesregierung zur Stärkung der Position NRWs in den Bereichen...more...