Peter Connock, PENTA director at AENEAS, discusses how Europe can better support the speedier transfer of new technologies to market.
PENTA is a EUREKA Cluster with a mission to catalyse research, development and innovation in areas of micro and nanoelectronics enabled systems and applications. Micro and nanoelectronics underpin the rapidly developing Digital Economy and are a cornerstone of key European & Global economic and societal developments.
PENTA supports projects along the Electronic Components & Systems (ECS) value chain, working with National Public Authorities to identify focus areas with common industrial and
SciTech Europa Quarterly met with PENTA’s director, Peter Connock, at the EFECS 2018 event in Lisbon, Portugal, in November to discuss how Europe can better support the speedier transfer of new technologies to market.
How would you describe the micro and nanoelectronics enabled systems and applications sector in Europe today? How has it evolved in recent years?
The underlying trend with regard to the development of the digital economy is that micro- and nano-technologies underpin almost everything that we do today. And that is a huge change to what was the case just a couple of decades ago. In terms of technology development, this means that rather than Europe trying to be fully engaged in everything, we should instead be deciding on the areas where we either already have leadership – such as in the automotive sector, for example – or on areas where we can take leadership and, most importantly, on areas where we must be involved for security or sovereignty reasons. We need to decide within Europe where we are going to lead, and where we are willing to be an important part of global value chains through which we can still economically benefit and meet the needs of our citizens.
Europe is well-placed in many important areas, such as the automotive industry, security, and in Internet of Things-type applications. These are important market segments and specialities are needed to make these things work and where a smarter approach, along with the development of new ground-breaking technologies, is the best way forward, and Europe tends to be quite good at that.
As a result Europe has, of course, developed some great champions – Bosch, Infineon, NXP and ST Microelectronics are leaders in the fields they serve, as well as many other companies who are smaller in size but who nevertheless still have an important role to play in the global economy. Competitive forces will always drive where Europe will develop, but by focusing on the specific areas where Europe should be active, targeted initiatives and funding programmes can be tailored so as to keep Europe in the game – or even help us to take new leadership positions as technology develops.
One of the more difficult areas here is in the manufacturing of silicon chips/semiconductors; obviously along with all the applications that they drive. Unfortunately, Europe has ‘lost’ the main processor chip capability to specialist manufacturers in the USA and Asia, though programmes are in place to try and redress this. Of course, we must also remember that this is a global business, and so there are areas where you want to lead and areas in which you want to participate, but that is not to say that there are also areas that should necessarily be ignored just because we don’t have a leadership position, because activity here will still contribute to Europe’s economy and knowledge base. That is a decision for industry to make, and stimulus can also come from the collaborative support instruments, either National, EUREKA, or from the European Commission.
To return to the automotive sector: this is a classic example of where Europe can play to its strengths. Indeed, we have recently seen Bosch announce that it is to construct a €1bn chip factory in Dresden, Germany, to produce semiconductors for automotive technology and the Internet of Things. We simply wouldn’t have seen that just a few years ago (it is more likely that the investment would have gone to somewhere in Asia).
It is really encouraging to see this kind of activity because it illustrates that, while subsidies play an important role, the value chain for developing these new types of products exists in Europe, meaning that the speed of innovation can be much quicker, and products leave the lab or fab and reach the marketplace much faster than before, and that is attracting investment. Semiconductor ‘Centres of Excellence’, such as the one now in place in Dresden, are also very important in establishing a critical mass of capabilities from which development and growth like this can occur.
While industry can and does inform policy as to where priorities should lie, is enough being done to look to academia and the research sector, too, in order to help form a more informed picture of the landscape?
That, indeed, is something that has been picked up in the latest edition of the Electronic Components & Systems (ECS) Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) which, along with laying out a mid-term roadmap, has also added a much longer-term vision than the first edition. This has been stimulated by bringing in academia and other long term thinkers together to create new ideas.
It is also important that we focus on getting much better at supporting disruptive technologies; we need to find an avenue whereby we can better pick up novel approaches and technologies and develop them quickly – something the USA is much better at doing than us.
Is that perhaps down to a lack of venture capital funds in Europe compared to the USA?
While there is less venture capital available in Europe as compared to the USA, it does exist here. I think that this is perhaps more to do with the fact that there is an atmosphere in Silicon Valley where people know what is going on and can pick up things more quickly; there is a more concentrated set of activities. In Europe, on the other hand, much of the venture capital is still in London, UK, while these innovations are occurring in countries all over Europe. As such, it is perhaps just the way we currently do things in Europe which is acting as something of a barrier, and so we need to look at how we can connect things better and operate with much shorter cycle times.
Europe has such a wealth of talent, both in the large enterprises who are often following very advanced programmes and doing very well, and also in the SME and academic environments. We need to be able to better engage so that the flash of an idea can be picked up quickly, either in partnership with a bigger company, or through other investment or funding programmes – and then commercially exploited economically or for societal good, ideally both.
One of the things we are discussing in the AENEAS-PENTA environment is how can we reach out to the broader SME community and find a way to support them into larger ecosystems, or consortia, focused on a particular technology or application development. We then want to help ensure that when the project is completed it can be commercially exploited and the SME benefits. That can be quite difficult, however; things are very spread out in Europe, and so encouraging smaller companies, which are often both time- and cash-poor, to join up is a challenge. Furthermore, many of the programmes in Europe are quite bureaucratic, and so we also need to find ways of making it easier for people to get involved.
Do national contact points have a role to play here?
As the Chair of the Board of an SME in Scotland, UK, I can certainly say that the national contact point is the one you want to do business with – you know them and they know you. However, the challenge exists in how to take small organisations to the next stage by developing and growing them internationally – ideally through collaborative programmes. There are best intents, and there are many programmes intended to support the development of smaller companies, but perhaps there is a better way of looking at the talent base in all ‘technology engaged’ countries and identifying those organisations with potential. That way, perhaps we would be able to manage them more effectively into an ecosystem, whether in the EUREKA- or Commission-supported programmes. Perhaps venture capital can also play a role here.
There is still a lot to do, and we are intensively talking about how to best approach this within the AENEAS Industrial Association, and with our partners, on how to address SME engagement. Of the companies involved in the PENTA programme, 40% are SMEs, many of which are new to collaborative innovation – this is important, as it is this new talent that allows you to potentially develop faster into new areas.
How would you characterise the currently available support for the commercialisation of research in Europe?
This is a complicated landscape because there are so many programmes that are now available – at the national, EUREKA and EU levels. And while these are not necessarily duplicative, many do overlap. One of the goals of Horizon Europe will therefore be to try to simplify things a little.
Large enterprises are able to navigate this landscape with relative ease, but for smaller companies to become involved we need to have a more managed and supportive pathway for them to follow. And that should not necessarily involve more instruments, but rather an ability on the part of the current ones to provide clear opportunities that change with the rapidly changing technology environment.
How important is it to be able to quickly establish and implement new research projects in a manner that matches the specific needs of the project objectives and the participants? How does PENTA try to achieve that?
It is crucial to determine a direction of travel that we want Europe to follow. Having done that, there should be a mechanism where industry can express their interest, bring the partners together in a collaborative consortium, and then submit a project for consideration to be funded. The project goals, of course, need to match the national interests of the funders, and that requires high quality communication between the two.
This is a Public-Private partnership and needs to meet the expectations and aspirations of both sides. Otherwise, it can be slow, or it doesn’t work, and speed is important because the difference between the first to produce and being a ‘follower’ is, in most cases, the chance to exploit a market segment; if you want commercial impact, then you need to be there first.
How does PENTA complement ECSEL? And how do you work to ensure you are minimising cross over?
We follow the same ECS Strategic Research Agenda and so, in theory at least, there is a certain element of conflict or even competition. In practice, however, the projects that run through ECSEL are much larger than those supported by PENTA, and PENTA operates in a significantly different manner to ECSEL.
So actually, the two are essentially complementary because there are things which need to be done at a large ‘strategic’ scale across Europe, and there are many others which only require something a bit smaller, or more focused, which are equally valuable, and which can still require the formation of ecosystems that can subsequently be commercially developed. Indeed, at PENTA we insist that there is a value chain present for the projects we select; we evaluate the projects from a technical sense using an independent panel of European experts for beyond the state of the art, but also for the quality of the consortium and the quality of the project’s structure. We then also look at whether it can be exploited once the project has ended.
PENTA thus complements ECSEL, and as PENTA is a EUREKA product rather than a European Commission one, there is potential for more international participation, while we can also offer more flexibility, agility and support than some other programmes – especially important for SME’s.
What do you feel will be the biggest impacts from the successful introduction of the new Cluster?
In a general sense, EUREKA clusters such as PENTA bring focus to a certain area or theme, and the aim is to stimulate activity by bringing the targeted thematic community together with as broad a representation as possible from the value chain and stimulate new ideas. Out of that, hopefully, will come high quality, high impact projects. PENTA manages the entire process: from community stimulation and submission through to evaluation and, finally, project monitoring.
PENTA emerged from a previous programme, CATRENE. It was re-designed to meet all the characteristics that were required for the digital future, with a new technology focus and other characteristics such as being ‘open to all’ in order to bringing new people and new ideas in to collaborative activity. In particular, we encourage SME engagement, provide a high quality of administrative and technical support, and continue to change in order to adapt to the rapidly changing digital environment.
What are your longer term hopes?
I would like to see a set of collaboration support instruments developed which are flexible to changing needs and which are based on a good analysis by industry and policy makers, and that look at where we want Europe to go and to then very quickly implement programmes to make that happen.
To take artificial intelligence (AI) as an example: there is a lot of emphasis on this at the moment, and so perhaps we need to explore what we want to do in AI. For instance, do we want to create a value chain that that introduces a certain chip to a specific area and so create a new application? We are good at things like that in Europe, but we also need to ask whether we can identify these ideas quickly and whether we can rapidly kick off a project to achieve a new market position for the ecosystem of organisations involved.
When quickly developing projects to tackle something that is seen as a specific need or challenge then is there a danger that these could turn out to be little more than a fad?
Yes, but that is the nature of risk, and that is also why there is a balance between the venture capital approach and the one taken by public authorities, the latter of which are traditionally a little more risk averse. At PENTA, we deal with public authority funding, but that it not to say at all that we avoid risk entirely – if something is completely ‘safe’, then public money should be being put into it anyway. But if it is pushing the technology boundaries and you make a project happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and it is likely to be successful and have high impact as it has the right partners involved, then that is a good use of public money and will result in economic and societal benefit.
Public funding can also have a significant benefit to society in a general sense by helping smaller companies to grow – as they evolve, they employ more people and the national infrastructure also develops and strengthens.
The difficulty, however, is that there is so much out there that needs work, and so we need to find a way to better identify what to support and how to make it successful – and therefore give Europe real leverage in the global market. However, if things do indeed turn out to be a fad, then we need to have the courage to stop the activity and move on to something else that will be more beneficial and have higher impact.
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