Yesterday I had the pleasure to listen to EIT Board Member Prof Karen Maex, vice-rector of KU Leuven, at an event on the Eindhoven High-Tech Campus and today we had an ERRIN policy briefing with Thomas Sanders of the EIT Task Force in DG EDUC, who briefed ERRIN members on the state of play of the European Technology Institute (EIT) and the upcoming call for Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), which provided us with a pretty clear idea on the forthcoming hot phase of this exciting new initiative.

The EIT intends to be a new force and pan-European brand for the promotion and generation of excellence and innovation in Europe. It aims to close the innovation gap between the EU and the US and Asia. KICs will be thematic, highly integrated and excellence-driven partnerships. They will be communities and ‘ecosystems’, not networks, that will be driven by a common vision, shared objectives, joint strategic planning and implementation, large-scale and long-term. Their focus is on innovation and entrepreneurship, on unlocking Europe’s innovation potential, educate entrepreneurial people and having real impact on the economy and society.

KICs will promote the production and exploitation of new knowledge products and best practices in the innovation sector, transforming the results of higher education and research activities into commercially exploitable innovation. They shall do this through holistic and interdisciplinary problem-solving approaches to key socio-economic challenges by generating new interactions across traditional stakeholder boundaries. KICs will also have a wider outreach objective, helping to stimulate an entrepreneurial mindset across Europe through the production and dissemination of new innovation models.

KICs should help to attract top talent from outside Europe and reduce brain drain of top European talent, in particular to the US. Participating institutions will be able to boast the EIT label and offer their students KIC-Masters and PhDs. The focus on mobility and on working together and sharing resources will be strong. They will have to achieve levels of integration, transnationally and interdisciplinary that are unprecedented in the EU and that go beyond existing initatives such as under the Research Framework Programme. KICs will not only be virtual but will have physical manifestations through ‘co-location’ centers based on entrepreneurship or technology centres. Calls for the KICs are scheduled to be published next April. They will be able to start working early 2010

Given the very modest EIT budget of €308 million, KICs will have to access existing funding streams like the Structural Funds or FP funds as well as national and regional funds, one of the cornerstones is to boost the involvement of private capital and partnerships with industry. This should be achieved through the KICs. The key point here is to get the CEOs of Europe’s global companies to spend their R&D money back home, instead of investing it in US and Asian campuses. Apparently, interest from industry is strong as meeting with 30 CEOs in June 2008 demonstrated.

Will this work, will it really take off? Well, it is worth a try. Its top-down/bottom-up structure with an indepentent governing board (no EU representatives are on the board) at the strategy-level and KICs at the operational level promise a new and refreshing approach. The vision of the Governing Board for these KICs as presented at their recent meeting in Bratislava on 24 November was received with enthusiasm. That’s of course just the start. The EIT will have to show that it won’t get bogged down by bureaucracy or other inefficiencies and the KICs will have to prove that Europe can overcome its fragmentation in R&D and innovation and by pooling resources achieve world-class excellence. Can we really? I think we can! May the force be with us!

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