#Intervio with Jessica HUNTINGFORD, Head of European Projects at RESOLVO s.r.l. and Iulian ANTONIAC, Dean of Faculty of Material Science and Engineering, UPB

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In recent years, there has been an accentuated tendency of EU to finance and support the innovative projects. What does innovative entrepreneurship mean and how could it be distinguished? 

I.A. Innovation is nowadays placed at the core of sustainable development. Therefore, the EU tendency to support innovative projects is natural. Innovation in business refers to the process of applying existing procedures or practices in new ways, applying a new technology to improve the products or processes or to develop a new product or process. For example, nanomaterials and advanced materials are promising to both improving existing products and developing new ones.

In terms of openness to change, in which sector do you think the innovative projects are implemented the fastest and easiest?

I.A. For sure nanomaterials and advanced materials is such a sector. To this, it’s obviously that IT is a sector in which innovative projects are implemented fast and easy and we can add energy and environment protection as well as health, electronics and automotive. It’s important to mention that the implementation of innovative projects in health sector are increasing due to highest demand but the certification of novel products are delayed due to the regulations or difficulties in nanomaterials evaluations of the  systemic effect on the human body.

An example of project with a strong innovative dimension is NMP-REG (Delivering Nanotechnologies, advanced Materials and Production to Regional manufacturing). Please summarize it in a few words.

J.H. NMP-REG is exciting, because it looks at how public policy can support technology transfer of innovations in one of the so-called Key Enabling Technologies (KET – or rather the technologies that the European Commission hopes can underpin modernisation of European Industry). In our case, we are taking about nanotechnologies, advanced materials and production. Much is going on at research level, but our project looks at how this research can make an impact in European manufacturing.

The Interreg Europe programme gives partners from across Europe the chance to exchange experiences, with a view to producing concrete Action Plans for improvement to regional and national policies to support research, development and innovation.

NMP-REG proposes an interregional cooperation between 5 regions from Belgium, Germany, Italy,  Portugal, and Romania. What are the effects of experiences exchange on regional policies in the field of nanotechnologies, advanced materials and production systems?

J.H. The Action Plans that I mentioned above are the key to answering this question. Action Plans for policy improvement will be approved in each partner territory. These Action Plans are born directly from interregional exchange, which has taken place through consortium meetings, document exchange, bilateral exchange between partners and significant stakeholder4 involvement at regional and interregional level.

To provide some examples, the Action Plan being prepared by our partner from Germany will focus on how to improve services to support entrepreneurship and start-up creation in the field on NMP. The specific characteristics of developments in NMP (high-costs and long timescale from prototype to production and certification), complicates start-up success, so this is a really important plan. In particular, our partner from Portugal (INL) is supporting them on the basis of work they have already undertaken in this field. Meanwhile, our Lead Partner from Tuscany sees the danger of separating new materials from economic sectors in the region. Therefore, thanks to an experience from Flanders, they will consider how to promote cross-cluster collaboration: new materials in fashion, new materials in nautical production.

What are the main challenges discovered, so far, from the discussions with stakeholders in the project?

J.H. In our first project year, partners and stakeholders looked in-depth at the challenges to tranferring innovations in the field of new materials to the manufacturing sector. In particular, they discussed whether the specific nature of NMP, in comparison to other R&I fields, presents particular challenges. I can summarise here what we found:

  • Need for adaptation: companies, particularly small and/or traditional companies that are not active in R&D, need to adapt their production apparatus, processes and their overall mind-set towards working with NMP;
  • Cross-sectoral / multi-disciplinary nature of NMP: KET, as a rule, cannot be projected onto one specific production sector of the regional economy. Instead, they contribute to the development of products of the next or second-next generation in almost all industrial sectors. The horizontal nature of NMPs, both along the value chain (from research to market) and across different technological areas, and the many opportunities for application of technological solutions in various sectors of the regional economy, require a favourable and proactive environment to support business ideas.
  • Cooperation: Cooperation between science (public-private research, academia) and business (industries, SMEs) is the essence of innovation delivery for a complex field like NMP and the basis for future policy improvements.
  • Skills: NMPs are highly innovative field of applied science with a huge potential for application in production processes both in traditional sectors and innovative or science-driven sectors. Training and life-long learning of researchers and staff involved in innovation and in production processes in enterprises is essential to facilitate integration of NMP solutions into production processes. There is a latent demand in companies for additional qualification in NMP, in particular in the field of nanotechnologies. Companies often refer to a mismatch between university education and companies’ specific needs in the area of nanotechnology.
  • Costs: NMP, in particular nanotechnology, are capital intensive. While there are many opportunities for start-ups, given the endless contexts of application and business, there are also high costs for start-up (initial investments into equipment) and to scaling up to industrial scale.

The most recent event – The Interregional Learning Event – within NMP-REG project took place between 10-11 July 2018 in Bucharest. What are the conclusions of the meeting?

J.H.  The event in Bucharest had two main objectives. The first was to go back to the roots. In other words, we wanted to share concrete case studies of successful companies innovating in the field of NMP. We had examples from Tuscany, Norte and North Rhein Westphalia. I think these examples really made us think and gave us a chance to remember why our NMP-REG project can be so important. Public policy to support technology transfer in this field really has the potential for significant social and economic impact.

The other objective was to continue interregional exchange on Action Plan development. Partners have 8 months left to complete their Action Plans, so this is really important moment. They need to be locking down their ideas, consolidating the transfer of knowledge from other partners and guaranteeing political and technical consensus at regional level. We worked in small groups and pair to swap knowledge and discuss progress. I think this sets us in good sted to complete our next activities successfully.

What are the benefits of transferring NMP technology to manufacturing?

J.H. As a Key Enabling Technology, huge investments are name into NMP as it is belived that NMP can make a real difference. NMP can change the way we manufacture, the way we dress, the way we treat illnesses. In the workshop in Bucharest, we saw examples of biomedical devices using nanoimprints. We saw examples of nanomaterials being used to make a traditional ceramic product dishwasher safe, thus allowing a small company to pentrate the US market.

However, these changes are only possible if frontline research becomes a market reality. European manufacturing needs to take up the research results and make them into products that incorporate all the potential benefits. Given the challenges above, our companies still need support to do this and that is where public policy come in. Public policy can support technology transfer, science-industry cooperation, start-up support – if can set the foundations and then the market actors have to be ready to run with it.

How do you estimate the evolution of the innovative entrepreneurship around NMP in partner regions? How about the whole Europe?

I.A.  There are a lot of good prerequisites for the development of innovative entrepreneurship around NMP in Bucharest-Ilfov. For example, under the national funding instruments, project application for eco-nano-technology and advanced materials are among the most numerous. Stakeholders involved in NMP-REG project mentioned that health is a domain which benefits a lot from nanomaterials and advanced materials to develop. However, these could be found in any industrial fields and, from this, at EU level there is a debate related to safety of nanomaterials. The most intense debates are now around food packaging, environment protection, medicine, cosmetics. For those eager to find more, the European Union Observatory for Nanomaterial platform (https://euon.echa.europa.eu/) is an excellent tool.

 

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