'Either we innovate or die'


The EU does not have enough entrepreneurs turning scientific breakthroughs into new products and services, writes MAIRE GEOGHEGAN-QUINN

IN JULY, I will be announcing the last call for proposals worth €8 billion under the 7th EU Research and Technological Framework Programme 2007-2013: more commonly known by the acronym FP7. This is the largest publicly funded research programme in the world.

It financially supports research activities in a range of economic sectors, for example, in the fields of information and communications technology, energy, health, transport, agriculture and food, environmental services, advanced materials, industrial initiatives, nano-technology, bio-technology, security and space.

Organisations from the academic, public, private and research communities can participate in FP7 projects. Irish participants have drawn down €384 million under FP7 to date. While third-level colleges are the largest beneficiaries of this EU research funding, private sector companies in Ireland have secured €96 million. So far, 200 small and medium-sized Irish companies have accounted for 75 per cent of all participants from Irish businesses that have successfully secured financial backing under FP7.

Enterprise Ireland is the national contact point for FP7 in this country. It advises prospective applicants on how our EU research programmes operate, the nature of our annual calls for proposals and on how to put an FP7 consortium together. The criteria for drawing down funding under FP7 is excellence in research. FP7 applications can include partners from other EU member states and from non EU countries. So if you are involved in a company that has a research component, I would urge you to look carefully at future funding opportunities under the next FP7 call for proposals in July this year.

However, supporting research activity is only one side of the coin. Putting in the necessary regulatory and legal environment in Europe to enable innovative goods and services to be developed is the other side of this coin. Europe has great scientists, and 31 per cent of all patents in the world comes from the EU, but what we do not have is follow-through.

We do not have enough entrepreneurs turning scientific breakthroughs into new products and services. We have an innovation gap and we must close it.

Supporting innovation in Ireland and in Europe can and must be a driver for growth and jobs. Skype and the MP3 music format are just two examples of inventions, built on the back of EU research, but commercialised and brought to the marketplace by American companies.

From a European perspective this is just not good enough. Jobs are being created elsewhere on the back of EU knowledge. This affects the competitive position of Europe at a time when China and India are also breathing down our necks.

Either we innovate or die. A crisis drives new thinking. But challenges for society bring economic opportunities too. Some of the best companies in the world have been built during recessionary times.

We must support new industries that will promote food security, make us more energy efficient and reduce our reliance on non-fossil fuels so that our climate goal targets can be reached.

Because cyber security is a growing threat for us all we must intensify our research effort so that both the personal computer you use at home and national government databases are fully safe at all times. Tackling all of these global challenges presents major commercial opportunities for innovative Irish companies.

The EU has to introduce a series of changes so that Irish and European companies can bring new ideas to the marketplace. Financial support must be given to “incubator” companies, in essence micro enterprises that are at the initial stage of devising new research.

Venture capital backing is then needed to scale companies up to a level where they can effectively compete for business on both a national and on a cross-border basis.

The public procurement sector represents 17 per cent of our GDP. The US government operates what is known as the small business innovation research (SBIR) scheme which supports innovative SMEs through the public procurement process. Similar SBIR schemes are now operating in Britain and in the Netherlands but this initiative needs to be replicated elsewhere in Europe.

The European Commission will be launching a pilot project in support of SBIR type programmes as part of July’s FP7 call for proposals. We must bring the best innovative practices from the public and private sectors together in pursuit of our policy goals.

Already, in Europe we operate a series of public-private partnerships that are seeking to replace fossil-fuelled cars, build the next generation of cleaner aircraft, expand the range of online services and develop more innovative medicines. Tackling global challenges requires international co-operation.

We also need the best researchers and scientists to work in Ireland and in Europe so that we can develop the innovative products and services of the future. This will help to create and maintain employment, improve people’s quality of life and build a better society for us all.

The European Commission proposed, on June 29th last, that €80 billion be spent on the research, innovation and science sectors between 2014-2020. This is a central component of our Europe 2020 programme.

It is vitally important that both the European Parliament and the 27 EU governments support this budgetary target because it will lead to the EU becoming a real and vibrant innovation union.

Developing an innovative society will not happen in a vacuum but neither did Google, Facebook, Ikea and Ryanair – all great innovators in different ways.

We all must be innovators now.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science