Do European Governments Care About Innovation?

Your author has just returned from a trip to Lisbon, Portugal, to attend the Eureka Innovation Days event. I was invited as part of a media partnership with my employer. We were there to interview a range of participants which would then be used as the basis for both blog posts and more ‘traditional’ online reporting.

In terms of scale, this was a big event. It was staged in the Expo 98 conference area (FIL) of Lisbon.

The event and surrounding area is one of opposites. In much of Lisbon, buildings are old and tattered, most in some state of disrepair. Graffiti and ‘tags’ are everywhere. This isn’t a problem, it actually provides quite a charachter for the city and I, for one, like it. In contrast, the FIL area is all high-rise hotels, flags, shiny glass-fronted buildings, trendy bars and government money.

Innovation is clearly a very important topic. In a world where the conventional ways are leading us to unrepairable climate and environmental damage, there is massive scope for new products. This relates to many areas of course, not just energy related, but the energy developments do appear to be the most urgent.

Innovation is also a way for economies to change and renew themselves. In a time of severe economic slowdown and global recession, business and product development is - or should be - a top priority.

It is worth recalling that since globalisation has really started to bite in the west, government Minister after government Minister has proudly claimed that in the ‘developed’ world, we think up the good ideas and then in Asia they are mass produced. Well, if you believe in that notion, you had better be a big fan of Eureka and their work!

It is also a top priority for investors around the world. Where else will new products and companies - followed by the resulting IPOs - come from if not from innovators? Stock markets will always need innovation and innovators whether they are trying to raise money to develop or compete on a larger scale or simply to cash out and reward themselves.

Eureka is a network in which partner countries are involved in identifying and funding innovative ideas. Some of the funding comes from the centre, but most comes from individual member states. These member states were originally European but now include a number of non-EU nations such as Switzerland, the Ukraine and Croatia. At this particular meeting, two new nations, Bosnia and South Korea were added as ‘associate partners’, placing them in line for full future membership.

It became clear to us how different nations view the same issues with wildly divergent opinions. We spoke to several members representing South Korea. Their stand was promoting 13 businesses that were looking for partners and opportunities. As far as we could tell, the South Korean goverment was funding their attendance. They were overjoyed with the ‘one super lead’ they had generated. They were hopeful that it would translate into millions of dollars in time.

But more than that, they felt that becoming an associate member of Eureka would be big news. In Europe, it would not be news at all. But Korea is a country with innovation at it’s core and the ability to start opening the EU as a market to SMEs (small and medium enterprises) was very exciting.

Not so for the European nations. This is the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, something being pushed by the EU very hard. It is also the year for the SBA - the European Small Business Act. This means that the work of a group like Eureka is high on the agenda.

But at this meeting, just one European Commissioner (Mr Potocnik) and one Government Minister (from Portugal) attended. Portugal is the current ‘Chair’ of Eureka and even the Minister from Germany was not there to receive the Chair as it was handed over.

So is this Innovation in Europe? An EU ‘year’, the biggest related conference of the year and minimal high-level governmental participation?

Luckily for the rest of us, innovation is not actually done by politicians. They won’t think up any new products in the coming years…

The real innovators were in attendance. We spoke to people working in solar energy development, carbon gas transference, DNA mapping, robotics, online projects, telecommunications, ethanol use and many more. There seemed to be more amazing ideas in the hall than people. And it seems that via Eureka, they are receiving the funding they need to move as swiftly as possible from idea to product development. This was truly inspiring.

Since most innovators are linked to smaller business operations, networks and events like these are ways for them to reach wider audiences, partners and funding. For many small businesses, it is difficult to penetrate the next town with a product or service, let alone another country or continent. Hopefully, more can do this than ever before.

With luck, we will all be able to invest in one of these new or disruptive technologies in a few years time.

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