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The future of Europe’s research and innovation programmes on the cusp of a new era

With the EU’s current research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, ending in 2027, the ground is now being set for its successor: one that needs to match the caliber of Europe’s knowledge base with the creativity and precision needed to drive the bloc’s competitiveness for the next decade, write José Manuel Barroso and Ján Figel.

José Manuel Barroso is former President of the European Commission. Ján Figel is former European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, and a current member of the EIT Governing Board.

Important discussions are being held about the future of Europe’s research and innovation landscape, as Horizon Europe – one of the largest frameworks worldwide, with a strong traction outside of the EU – will come to a wrap in the next couple of years.

Twenty years ago, we found ourselves at the centre of similar discussions, debating the needs for Europe’s future innovation strategy. Back then, a bold idea was put forward: an institute for innovation needs to be created, one whose sole mission is to become an ecosystem for pan-European innovation by better connecting the “knowledge triangle” of education, research, and business.

Silos hinder innovation, especially between countries, and unfortunately prevent great research and science from being put into products and services that address societal challenges. An innovative entrepreneur should be able to walk into an office in Portugal and get support to grow and access a new market in Slovakia, on either side of the continent, or beyond the EU.

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) was born out of this idea – and in the past fifteen years, it has been connecting the missing links necessary for innovation to flourish, bringing together the worlds of business, research, and education.

But the EIT was set up in a distinctive way: it wouldn’t just bring together brilliant minds from different sectors, but give them the autonomy to focus on innovation in a bottom-up approach, whilst also guiding their direction. This way, public and private investment was focused on innovating in areas that deliver on the EU’s strategic priorities.

Through this approach, the EIT set up organisations known as Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), each in a sector that responded to a pressing global challenge from energy, health, food, and raw materials to mobility, climate, manufacturing, and digitalisation.

Partners were brought together and challenged to evolve: universities were capitalised on to increase entrepreneurship education among engineers, businesses were involved to help develop curricula and access talent, and research centers were supported to commercialise products from the laboratory.

Looking back, no one would have imagined the pace at which the EIT would grow, becoming arguably the world’s largest innovation ecosystem.

Today, its impact speaks for itself: with over 50 innovation hubs throughout Europe, the EIT has supported over 10000 companies, helping them raise over €9.5 billion in private investment and launch more than 2400 new products on the market.

One of these products came from Northvolt, the Swedish EV battery giant that today is worth over €10 billion and has five gigafactories planned in Europe and North America. The firm – founded by two former Tesla engineers who returned to Europe – credits the EIT Community as being one of its first supporters, helping it with seed funding and connecting it to investors and customers.

Another burgeoning success came from Dr. Laura Soucek, who, though the help of three different EIT accelerators, connected with experts and investors – which in turn allowed her start-up, Peptomyc, to reach the milestone of publishing in February this year, evidencing the safety and efficacy of its novel cancer therapy.

Thanks to early EIT support, Peptomyc grew to a stage where it was able to get funding from the European Innovation Council Accelerator for mature-stage start-ups.

The EIT has also sparked an innovation in how the EU can mobilise local and regional partners to create sustainable ecosystems. The EIT KICs were set up with a lifecycle of 15 years – so that, with the right steering, they would then be able to survive without EIT funding.

Fast forward to today and this 15-year milestone is fast approaching with the EIT’s first three KICs -one of which is even being valued close to €1billion – all in good financial standing. With their expertise, these KICs have carved out leadership roles chairing industrial alliances in key strategic policy areas such as carbon-neutral European cities, batteries and artificial intelligence.

Reflecting on the EIT’s mandate, and given the need for collaboration to solve strategic challenges (most recently evidenced by the EIT’s new programme to skill 1 million workers in under three years), an important lesson can be learned going forward: to not stop what works.

The new European Research and Innovation programme should continue to invest in models that work, like the EIT, but also to propose bold and targeted ideas that reflect the strength of the EU in fostering collaboration.

We face a whole new set of pressing global challenges – including the defense of our continent with two wars at our doorsteps, the proliferation of machine learning, and the scarcity of natural resources on our planet.

With the results the EIT has been able to showcase in its first 15 years, it’s imperative is to enable growth for the next decade. We can be proud of the successful innovators, businesses, and universities Europe is home to, and of the distinctive model of European open innovation. Let’s not lose this perspective when looking towards the future.


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