Smits: fund ‘disruptive innovators’ to create Europe’s Uber

Director-general of research and innovation at the European Commission says university research funding would not be affected

June 28, 2017
Innovate
Source: iStock

The European Commission’s director-general for research and innovation wants to see more public funding allocated to entrepreneurs who will create the next “Yahoos, Ubers [and] Amazons”, but not at the expense of universities.

Robert-Jan Smits said Europe has not cultivated the types of “disruptive innovators” that created big brand companies and one of his priorities was enticing these types of individuals to apply to public funding programmes.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Smits said the European Innovation Council would run a pilot scheme over the next three years to attract “crazy innovators”, most of whom “don’t come from universities”, he said.

“If you look at the disruptive innovations, they have been very much digital-driven, leading to new markets. In Europe, we have not really had that type, which leads to enormous enterprises and new jobs,” he said. “Very often, many of them also haven’t applied to our programmes. If you ask them why, they say it’s not bottom-up enough.

“In the pilot, we’re going to run bottom-up. The peer review will not be done by just the traditional peers; we will ask business and venture capitalists to become involved.

“[But] this will not draw money away from the European Research Council, let me be crystal clear. We also will not take money away from any other part of Horizon 2020 [the Commission’s main research funding programme]. That would not be good given the enormous over-subscription we are facing across the board.”

Mr Smits warned that it would take “willing” from public organisations to risk investing in this area, because the “failure rate will be very high”.

“We see an enormous amount of innovators in Europe…but they often don’t make it through the [venture capital] valley of death [the period of time from when a start-up firm receives investment to when it begins generating revenues]. We’re going to see if we can attract them to the European Innovation Council which also will facilitate scale-up.”

Mr Smits reiterated that he was keen to address the “over-subscription” of applications to the ERC, where success rates have dropped to 14 per cent. 

“It shows how much talent there is, but also that we need more money,” he said. “It’s very simple. We need more money to support the best innovators and brains.”

Mr Smits refuted the notion that because some areas of Europe were more successful at gaining research funding, there should be consideration for geographical location.

“It’s a constant discussion between…countries who say they aren’t getting their fair share,” he said. “We’ve been very ruthless on excellence; we can only compete with the rest of the world in excellence and not mediocrity. The moment we start introducing geographical criteria…I will immediately step down because that is not a policy I feel we should have in European science and innovation. This, however, does not mean that we should not help notably the [developing] countries to build a stairway to excellence, but this is mainly the role of the structural funds, not of Horizon 2020.

“Ruthless excellence means there are pockets...where a lot of money is concentrated, but that’s how it is.”

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com

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