Europe's Knowledge and Innovation Communities, or KICs, have a potential budget of EUR1 billion (US$1.38 billion) each and the huge collaborative research and postgraduate training networks initiative is well under way. Three KICs have been established and a call for proposals recently went out for another two, with more planned in the coming years.
The initiative is being run by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, or EIT, an independent body set up by the European Union in 2008 to deliver advanced training in innovation and entrepreneurship and to help overcome some of Europe's grand challenges.
Under the European Union research programme Horizon 2020, the EIT has a budget of EUR2.7 billion and it is financing the KICs by providing 25% of their running costs.
The KICs coordinate cooperation between higher education institutions, research institutes and the private sector across countries to train the next generation of European researchers and entrepreneurs, conduct research and take its innovative results to market.
This makes the EIT the only mechanism within Horizon 2020 that links the three sectors, the idea being to create bridges between ideas and business creation. Further, says the EIT on its website, "it connects centres of excellence around Europe to create real European innovation networks".
Headquartered in Budapest, Hungary, the EIT has expanded operations considerably, and the KICs have established 'co-location centres' in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Leveraging efforts and effects
Through leverage efforts drawing in additional funding from the industrial sector, the EIT has the potential to amass EUR10.8 billion for its operations through the KIC networks during Horizon 2020's 2014-20 duration.
And by aligning with other parts of the Horizon 2020 programme, notably the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions initiative awarding grants to researchers, the KICs have a potential budget of more than EUR1 billion each as well as considerable influence over masters and doctoral training in Europe.
A third leveraging effect is that EU member countries align research training programmes with both the KICs and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions.
On the leveraging effects of the KICs Alexander von Gabain, chair of the EIT governing board, told University World News: "It is important to realise that for the EIT's KICs (existing and future), a leverage effect is not optional - it is part of their DNA.
"The concept was designed to achieve impact in each of the societal challenges addressed by the KICs, and one of the many examples of this leverage effect that has emerged with the existing three KICs is the way we educate entrepreneurially minded talent through EIT labelled degree programmes delivered by leading European higher education institutions within the KICs."
In the context of the model's leverage effect, Von Gabain highlighted the "unique funding model through which every EUR1 invested by the EIT is complemented by a EUR3 investment by the KICs and their partners".
EIT had an operating budget of EUR309 million during the 2008 to 2013 period, and this has increased almost nine-fold in Horizon 2020, which places the KICs in a strong position to have an enormous impact on doctoral training in Europe over the next decade.
The European Union launched three KICs - Climate-KIC, EIT ICT Labs and KIC InnoEnergy - in 2009. Since then more than 1,000 students have been trained and more than 100 start-up companies have been established.
The Climate-KIC aims "to provide the people, products and leadership to confront the climate challenge globally" and, by driving innovation for climate change mitigation or adaptation, help shape the next global economy.
With 47% of partners from business, 32% from academia and 21% being public bodies, it is assessing climate change and managing its drivers, studying transitions to low carbon cities, advancing adaptive water management and developing zero-carbon production systems.
It has co-location centres - or 'innovation factories' - across Europe, led by world-class universities and companies, and regional innovation communities led by local or regional governments that support the testing, implementation and scaling up of innovation.
Climate-KIC takes research results and identifies a market for them through three areas of expertise: an open network that manages community partnerships to create climate innovation and rallies companies, cities and universities around delivery of new projects and services; masters and PhD courses that combine climate change science, entrepreneurship and exposure to innovation activities; and connecting students, young entrepreneurs, research centres and investors to encourage climate-related start-ups and their growth into businesses.
Professor Mary Ritter of Imperial College, London, who is the CEO of the Climate-KIC, told University World News that it was unique, combining "education with innovation and entrepreneurship - bringing together not just industry and academia but also, crucially, city and regional governments.
"Our young entrepreneurs are first-class with many having already established their own start-ups - a testament to our 'learning by doing' programmes."
KIC InnoEnergy is tackling the need for new technologies for sustainable energy and a climate-neutral Europe and developing new energy products, notably alternatives to fossil fuels. It has six regional 'innovation factories' and partners that include eight companies, seven research institutes and 13 universities and business schools.
And EIT ICT Labs is building ICT talent through higher education programmes that promote innovation and entrepreneurism.
Its co-location centres bring people from different countries, disciplines and organisations together, working in six focus areas: smart spaces, smart energy systems, health and well-being, digital cities, future media and content delivery, and intelligent mobility and transportation systems.
In all, the KICs until now have established 17 innovation hotspots across Europe, with the participation of more than 350 partners from business, higher education and research and other institutions. They have incubated around 400 business ideas.
The education stream that has produced more than 1,000 postgraduates in around 20 programmes features elements of inter-sectoral and international mobility, which aligns the KICs with other training programmes in Horizon 2020, notably the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions initiative, which has an inter-sectoral element as one of the evaluation criteria.
Last month a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Initial Training Networks call for young researchers - doctoral students - drew more than 1,100 proposals, 11% up on the last call. Participation of industry is mandatory in the training networks, on an equal footing with university supervisors - in other words, the same training model promoted through the KICs.
In February the EIT launched a call for new KIC proposals, with a view to selecting two new KICs focusing on innovation for healthy living and active aging, and raw materials - sustainable exploration, extraction, processing, recycling and substitution.
The new KICs will be designated in December.
There will be a further call in 2016 for a sixth KIC focusing on Food4Future and added value manufacturing, and in 2018 there will be a KIC call around urban mobility.
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