The European picture

In our strategic document, Connect and Catalyse, the section on “thinking and acting globally” identifies The Technology Strategy Board’s interest in Europe, the US and other, emerging, economies. It is true however that over our first 18 months the focus for development has been mainly concentrated on our UK work. Although we have been involved since our inception in a number of European research and development funding programmes such as EUREKA and Eurostars, it has not always been evident how we secure benefits for UK business - and yet many of the companies that we deal with have strong European connections.

So last week saw an important milestone for the Technology Strategy Board, when we travelled to Brussels, holding our April Governing Board there and meeting with a good number of representatives from the Commission and from UK based organisations in Brussels.

Thinking back on an intensive 48 hours, I have concluded that there are already significant opportunities that we are not taking full advantage of and, more importantly, that there is an opportunity for us to shape and influence future innovation thinking - at a critical time of change and as a new agenda is being put in place.

Our objectives for the visit were clear enough – to raise the profile of UK innovation in Europe; to find opportunities where UK business could gain benefit; to identify ways of influencing future EU direction and to begin to benchmark our innovation activities against those elsewhere in Europe.

Our existing work on EU initiatives means we are not at a standing start. However, from talking to business I know from that the jury is out on their effectiveness. With significant sums of money available for innovation at the European level, we need to pursue full engagement and take the potential benefits seriously. The Framework Programme 7, the key EU innovation funding mechanism, has a budget of over 50bn Euros for the period 2007 to 2013. We must ensure UK business gets its fair share and that this complements our own investments in the UK to maximise UK economic benefit.

Our promotional support for R&D initiatives such as EUREKA and Eurostars has been quite modest in scale; and yet without too much encouragement UK-based SMEs have submitted a high number of good quality submissions to recent competitions. Our own feasibility competition related to the upcoming Photonics21 research programme on Next Generation Optical internet Access has been extremely well received, and shows us one way of helping UK-based companies prepare for successful engagement in European funding competitions. Our challenge-led approach also prepares UK companies well to take part in initiatives such as the ‘Ambient Assisted Living’ programme and the Energy Efficiency in Buildings E2B Public Private Partnership. We are looking to establish a more integrated approach to these opportunities, linking the Framework Programme 7 National Contact Points which we manage with our KTNs in those particular areas where the Technology Strategy Board has identified priority action plans.

UK businesses do sometimes mention concerns they have regarding engagement in European programmes – such as difficulty with Intellectual Property Agreements, bid bureaucracy, heavy reporting requirements and a confusing range of Regional Support Initiatives. It is one of our roles to influence thinking to reduce these perceived hurdles.

It is also the case, however, that the credit crunch has raised the ‘pain threshold’ for business and many firms are now showing much more enthusiasm to engage. Europe has also taken helpful steps in response to the economic climate (closely mirroring our own objectives) – such as realigning FP7 in fewer key areas, a greater sense of urgency to deliver, and a much stronger emphasis on commercialisation. It is no surprise that, in preparing for the upturn, EU priorities closely align with our own and vice versa – green cars, energy efficiency in buildings and broadband for example, as well as a focus on bioscience and healthcare.

I am particularly impressed by the approach of the Innovation Policy thinking in DG Enterprise and their emphasis on societal innovation alongside technological innovation. This seems to fit very well alongside our challenge-led and demand-led approach.

The UK is well placed in terms of representative organisations in Brussels – whether UKREP, the Research Council and University contacts at UKRO; the European representatives of UKTI and the representatives from each of the regions (such as the West Midlands) and the devolved administrations. These representatives do a good job but I do wonder if we present them with a sufficiently joined-up picture of our innovation objectives to allow them to be most effective in securing optimum UK business benefit. We need to find ways of presenting a more integrated approach.

UK universities have fared well in European research programmes, ironically most often teaming up with businesses from other member states. Continued investment in science and research is important across Europe as it is in the UK. I sense, however, that the need to translate this into business benefit is recognised. At the same time work going on within the Commission has recognised the importance of investing in innovation for recovery. There is a window of opportunity over the next 6 to 12 months for the Technology Strategy Board to influence the future European agenda for innovation and the business exploitation of research - and I believe we are well placed to do so. My aim is for us to play a lead role in shaping this future, in a way that benefits both Europe and UK business.

Our Governing Board see this opportunity and is keen to support it, but in a targeted and focused way that provides better UK business benefit, pound for pound, than simply investing in our own national programmes. I am looking to increase our support to Eurostars, to engage our KTNs in wider European activities, to encourage UK business to engage with the appropriate platforms in areas such as low carbon vehicles, low impact buildings and healthcare, to influence the reorientation of FP7 and to be part of the wider social innovation thinking of the Commission.

This first visit to Brussels was an historic milestone for our Governing Board and in twelve months time I hope to be able to look back and see that it was just the start of a journey as we increasingly influence Europe’s social and technological innovation agenda.

 

Last updated on Friday 31 July 2009 at 09:36

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