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How industrial research is converging to keep Europe ahead of the game

EU-funded scientists are developing nanorobots which can kill tumour cells with high temperatures and DNA origami. Image credit: Shutterstock
EU-funded scientists are developing nanorobots which can kill tumour cells with high temperatures and DNA origami. Image credit: Shutterstock

Europe’s support for industry has evolved from single technology programmes to large-scale partnerships involving whole sectors and hundreds of researchers, and it’s helping Europe’s industry keep a leading position in sectors such as energy and transport. 

Over a quarter of Europe’s biggest ever funding programme – Horizon 2020 – has been allocated to help fund research partnerships between the EU and industry.

These public-private partnerships (PPPs) bring together EU research funding and entire industries in Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and contract-based PPPs in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, aeronautics, electronics, hydrogen fuel cells, new factories, construction, chemicals and other process industries, and have ambitious goals such as developing new drugs, making industries cleaner and cutting emissions.

‘The timescales of developing some technologies can be very long for a business and difficult to sustain, so support from the Framework Programmes can be a good way to get research going and to keep it going,’ said Dr Leopold Demiddeleer, a former executive at Belgian chemicals group Solvay who has led the industrial research and development of hydrogen fuel cells and organic electronics. 

However, these large-scale initiatives are the culmination of 30 years of continuous European research funding for industry.

Industrial research was already at the heart of the Framework Programmes in its first incarnation in the early 1980s. The focus then was on so-called pre-competitive research in single technology areas. 

Etienne Davignon, European Commissioner for Industrial Affairs and Energy 1981-1985, who introduced the First Framework Programme in 1984, first put forward the argument that European research funding should help make industry more competitive. 

This was embodied in the European Strategic Program on Research in Information Technology (ESPRIT) which in the 1980s linked researchers with the big industry players in the IT sector, who proposed what work was needed to compete with the US and Japan. 

The 1980s saw the birth of parallel industrial programmes based on the model of ESPRIT: BRITE, which encouraged basic research in industrial technologies across all sectors, and EURAM, backing the research and development of advanced materials. 

In the early 1990s support grew for larger ‘integrated projects’ in the Framework Programmes, which could help Europe’s industries innovate and hold their ground against competition from Asia.

 It took two years of negotiations for Member States to finally agree that EU research funding should support targeted research in the Fourth Framework Programme, which would help industry to become more competitive. 

The focus broadened in the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) to include measures that would make Europe a better place to innovate, such as a more efficient research infrastructure, and create a cleaner and safer environment. 

Arturo GarcIa Arroyo, Director for Industrial Technologies at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation during the first five Framework Programmes, stated at the time that ‘the key action concept of FP5 embodied all activities, combining the scientific knowledge and technological applications that will help develop and empower our industries to compete with their competitors and help European society develop a sustainable future’. 

‘The timescales of developing some technologies can be very long for a business and difficult to sustain,’

Dr Léopold Demiddeleer, a former executive at Belgian chemicals group Solvay

A new industrial future 

During the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), industry, public authorities and technology users came together as part of the new European Technology Platforms, which were designed to operate across sectors in areas such as manufacturing, construction, nanotechnologies and industrial safety. These forums for discussion and exchange provided a basis for the launch of the JTIs and contractual PPPs in the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

The impact of research funding through a consortium of research institutes, universities, small- and medium-sized businesses and large industrial groups is illustrated in the success of the ORION nanomaterials project, funded under FP7.

The four-year partnership has generated new technologies that can greatly improve rechargeable batteries, solar panels and light-emitting devices. It has sparked about a dozen patent applications and more than 70 scientific papers. Members of the consortium have also already launched some new products on the market.

The inclusion of emerging but disruptive technologies, such as nanotechnologies, in FP6 completed the full range of research activities that helped Europe to compete and to fashion a new industrial future. 

This drive to use research funding to help promote innovation in Europe’s industry through large partnerships is being developed further under Horizon 2020 via its industrial leadership pillar, which emphasises the importance of innovation in the quest for competitiveness, economic growth and jobs, and is encouraging thousands of projects that bring benefits to the wider economy.