Innovation must cut across all sectors, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told the Innovation Convention 2014, an event organised by the EU to enable people to discuss new ideas.
‘Innovation is not just a policy for one commissioner or one director general, it is something that has to be a mainstream policy,’ he said during the opening speech of the Brussels conference.
He said one thing that would help to stimulate innovation in Europe would be to tackle the fragmentation of the European digital market.
‘When in the United States a small start-up has an idea, immediately their market is their whole internal market across the United States,’ he said. ‘In Europe it is absurd, as we still have 28 digital markets. How can we compete when we still have 28 digital markets?’
The idea behind the event was to stimulate research and entrepreneurship by linking up innovative people so they can network and exchange new ideas.
That includes young innovators, who took part in a panel discussion on what can be done to make things easier for them to develop their ideas. The panel included 14-year-old programmer Jordan Casey, Elif Bilgin from Turkey who developed a way to make plastic from banana skins, and Spanish computer programmer Alberto Elias.
‘Society puts out a very narrow road for people, and I know it’s a cliché but you need to get young people to think outside of the box because the road is actually much wider, you can do many things when you are young and we need to let them know that,’ Elias told the event.
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, told the panel: ‘We need to look very differently at how we educate and stimulate and … we need to listen to what young people want.
‘I would love to see ministers for education and research in each of the Member States actually sitting down with young people like those and listening to them,’ she added.
‘The Innovation Union itself needs to be innovative by working always to create the very best conditions for innovation in the academic and business worlds.’
Mark Rutte, Prime Minister, the Netherlands
As well as young scientists, the event also included presentations from senior researchers such as Professor Serge Haroche, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics. Prof. Haroche underlined the importance of government funding for blue sky research, even though the benefits may only become apparent years later.
He picked out the example of people who were looking into quantum mechanics research in the 1920s, when the term was first used by scientists in Germany.‘If you told them that these discoveries would have a big impact in the year 2000, they would not have cared,’ he said.
Europe’s universities are at the heart of blue sky research, and Lord Chris Patten, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, in the UK, called on governments to step up their funding for universities during the Innovation Union lecture.
‘If we want better universities, making a bigger and better contribution to our national and European life, then we have to spend more on them,’ he said. ‘Spending for the future seems hugely preferable to trying to protect and bail out the past, not something which finance ministers always seem to comprehend.’
As well as encouraging debate, the event included the first ever innovation inducement prize, an award which asked researchers to solve the challenge of how to make vaccines stable at room temperature.
The problem is that most vaccines need to be stored in refrigerators, making them expensive and difficult to get to people in some developing countries.
The EUR 2 million prize was won by German biopharmaceutical company CureVac GmbH, who made vaccines that could be stored at room temperature by using RNA, a messenger molecule that is hardier than DNA.
The Innovation Convention included an exhibition of new technology which has resulted from EU research funding, such as the ZHEST model of a supersonic jet that could fly from Europe to Japan in less than three hours.
‘This prize of EUR 2 million recognises a real leap forwards in vaccine technology,’ Robert-Jan Smits, the Director-General of Research & Innovation, said as the winners were announced. ‘It rewards a group that has made significant advances which may allow the elimination of cold chain and which, in turn, can greatly increase the reach and effectiveness of global vaccination programmes.’
German Parkinson’s disease researcher Dr Saskia Biskup, co-founder of CeGaT GmbH, received the top award at the second of its EU Prize for Women Innovators during the event.
The Spanish city of Barcelona also won the iCapital award and became the first European capital of innovation.
‘Barcelona is a deserving winner of the first iCapital award, for its dedication to using new technology for the benefit of its inhabitants,’ Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn said. ‘Still, there were many other great initiatives and proposals, and I want cities and regions to join together and share their experiences.’
The Innovation Convention and the awards associated with it are all part of the EU’s strategy to make Europe more innovation-friendly by funding more than research projects.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte underlined the importance of going beyond research funding. ‘The Innovation Union itself needs to be innovative by working always to create the very best conditions for innovation in the academic and business worlds,’ he told the event.
A decrease in private sector innovation activities means that levels of innovation in the EU did not increase in 2014, according to the EU’s Innovation Union Scoreboard which was published on 7 May.
Measuring energy fluctuations in the nucleus of a rare radioactive element could improve the accuracy of GPS from metres to centimetres, while marbled volcanic magma is being used to create eruption countdowns, thanks to groups of European researchers who are pushing the boundaries of timekeeping.
Geochemical stopwatches may also predict volcano eruptions.
SOFT Prize winner Jonathan Naish has developed a virtual reality system.