“Is Europe innovative? Oh, Yes we are very innovative!”, Director General of the European Commission Mr Robert-Jan Smits on another Sting Exclusive

Robert Jan Smits' exclusive interview by Carlo Motta at the Sting’s pavilion during EBS 2014

Robert Jan Smits’ exclusive interview by Carlo Motta at the Sting’s pavilion during EBS 2014

This revealing exclusive interview with Mr Robert-Jan Smits, Director General of the European Commission for Research and Innovation, was conducted by Carlo Motta at the European Sting’s pavilion during European Business Summit 2014. In the following interview Carlo Motta will be signalled as C.M and Mr Smits as R.J.S.


C.M. : It is a big honour and pleasure to welcome in our pavilion Mr Robert Jan Smits, Director General of the European Commission for Research and Innovation. I would like to start this interview with the following question: “Is Europe innovative enough? and what about the ‘research gap’ between Europe and other markets like Asia and the US?”

R.J.S. : If the question is  “Is Europe innovative?”, I can say “Oh, Yes, we are very innovative!”. Are we innovative enough? This whole thing is a big challenge and a big question. Europe with its small size of its population is generating one third of world’s knowledge. And that’s amazing! The other third is generated by the United States and the rest of the world does the other third. So it’s quite amazing that such a small continent is able to produce so much know how. One of the problems that Europe has faced is to transfer that knowledge into marketable products and services. We have not been always very effective and good in doing it. Compared to the United States for instance where things go extremely fast and we see a very fast deployment of the results of the research into innovation. Or to put in another way, we were very good into putting euros into knowledge but now we have to turn the knowledge back into euros.

C.M. : Can the Commission facilitate the intra-EU diffusion of innovation and how?

R.J.S.: Well we should indeed keep on working on the real internal market. No more barriers to cooperation, no more barriers to transfer of knowledge; that is between scientists there can be much more cooperation; that is that scientists can move much easier from one country to another; that there is a passport for venture capitalists which allows British venture capitalists to be in any market in Europe. So, in other words we have to further develop this internal market which allows then innovation to take place. Because don’t forget that one of the biggest challenges or problems that certain companies face who have technological breakthroughs is that they don’t have enough size in the market in order to roll out their products. This is of course one of the biggest assets of the United States who have this big internal market where you can indeed very quickly deploy and roll out inventions on a large scale. But Europe has done a lot in recent years in the recent, an enormous amount of initiatives have been deployed to create that internal market but also to work on the funding side.

C.M.: Back to the Europe-USA comparison. What about the link between university and jobs in Europe? We are all pretty much convince that the US has done quite well this connection. What about the EU in your opinion?

R.J.S.: Well things in Europe have changed a lot in universities. I remember five-size years ago when i went to a university, first they would tell me “oh, we have generated so many papers; we have done so many studies”.  Now first thing they tell me is “we have created so many spin-ups or startups”. So we see also there that more and more European universities take innovation quite seriously; incubators are very keen indeed that students and their professors start their own enterprises. So we see an enormous change in culture in Europe; a good change in culture because of course it is in the interest of our society that results of research are not staying in a drawer but they are put into products and processes. And universities play a key role in generating the knowledge but also making sure the knowledge is transferred into industry.

C.M. : How can the Commission help the laggard EU countries strengthen their innovative actions?

R.J.S.: What we do from our side is that first of all we are of course telling member states “keep on investing in science and innovation”. If you have to cut budgets for whatever reason, do not cut the budge in science and innovation and education. That needs to be strengthened. Take an example of Finland, when in the early 90s it completely lost the Soviet market and saw a collapse of its GDP, Finland had to cut everywhere and they cut everywhere; except the expenditure on science and innovation; the increased that. And that was the basis for the Finnish industry, for the Finnish competitiveness, for the paper industry, for the Nokia of this world… That is a wise decision. So, we are constantly reminding our member states of this Finnish example, we are reminding the member states of indeed continuing investing in science and innovation. You know what is quite interesting? Those countries, which over the last ten years, have constantly invested on science and innovation are at the same time the countries who got the quickest out of this economic crisis. So there is a clear link between and science and innovation. That is something that keep on reminding our member states. And I must say this message is more and more understood. And the fact that at the European level in a shrinking future EU budget, because you know that the future budget of the European Union is gonna get smaller than what it is today, there is one are that it will grow and that is science and innovation. And that is I think the recognition by the heads of states and government of Europe, Merkel, Cameron…, of the clear link between investment in size of innovation and competitiveness.

C.M. : So you are happy about the response you usually get from the member states?

R.J.S.: Yes, I think the message is getting through and what we also see very clearly now is that at the highest political level, at the level of Prime Ministers, people are getting a keen interest on science and innovation. And it’s not anymore seen as a cost, but it’s seen as an investment. And that’s very important. That’s the turning point we are reaching at national level, the senior politicians are seeing investments in science and innovation as real investments and not as a cost. And that is exactly where we want to be. Because that means that science and innovation are very important component of the economic policy of the member states.

C.M. : In your opinion, how did the economic crisis changed the idea of innovation for people?

R.J.S.: That’s a good one. How has the economic crisis changed the idea of innovation? (hmmm) I think the economic crisis made it clear that Europe cannot lean back and relax; that means that we have got to get our selves together. And I think people have realised with the economic crisis that through the old traditional sector we cannot build a future. And that our future is in innovation and knowledge. So I think that the economic crisis has lead people more than ever to realise that the future jobs of a country, the future competitiveness of a country has to come through innovation. Perhaps the crisis has lead to a wake up call. Not to rely on the traditional way of doing things; not to rely on the traditional sectors; not to rely on how to come back what we had in the past; No I think it was a wake up call which lead people to realise that innovation is the only way forward and it’s the future for our children. –

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