EU wants €20 billion extra for the Horizon innovation fund, but will it happen?

The European Union is entering a new phase with the inauguration of the new European Commission, which was approved by the European Parliament yesterday after a long series of personal interviews. The new President, Ursula von der Leyen, has set a clear course for her commissioners. This is primarily aimed at making Europe climate-neutral. The other major pillar of its intended policy is to increase the competitiveness of the European Union.

President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission has set out a strict policy framework.

The key question, of course, is how she and her fellow commissioners want to achieve these objectives. In the main, that means: research into better production methods and innovating the existing ones. Consequently, funding is needed for this.

Dire necessity

Innovation and its investment is a dire necessity, according to the new European governance. In the first place, because the European Union must be completely CO2-neutral by 2050. This means that we will have to live, drive, fly and produce in a CO2 neutral way. So that’s quite a challenge. Secondly, because competing superpowers such as the US (2.8%), South Korea (4.2%) and Japan (3.3%) invest a much higher percentage of their GDP in innovation than the EU does. (2.1% while the target is set at a minimum of 3%). These countries subsequently also score better when it comes to innovating their businesses. Because of this, the EU is lagging behind them, so says Bulgarian Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, She is in charge of the innovation budget for the upcoming period.

As her predecessor Carlos Moedas had already announced last year, Gabriel wants to increase the budget of the research and innovation fund Horizon Europe from almost €100 billion to €120 billion. This amount is to be spread over the 2021 to 2027 budget period. This money should go towards basic research in universities as well as innovation by large companies, start-ups and SMEs.

Not a piece of cake

Which is a noble ambition that no member state should actually be opposed to. You’d think that it was a piece of cake. But it’s not. Life is complicated within the offices of the European institutions. They have to constantly do business with the governments of the 28 – and, if there is a Brexit, 27 – member states. Then those governments have to deal with their constituents in the cities and rural areas of their country. And the constituencies (especially those in the poorer EU regions) may threaten the innovation plans of this new European Commission.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, wants more money for the Horizon Fund

The major battle is being waged via discussions by the heads of state or governments concerning the European Union’s long-term budget. This is something which they will have to hammer out in 2020. Von der Leyen wants more money from the member states to be able to implement her ambitious policy program. But the member states do not want to pay the EU a higher percentage of their GNP, says spokesman Roy Kenkel of The Permanent Representation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (PV) in Brussels. (As an example, the European Commission wants The Netherlands to contribute 1.11% of their GNP).

“The Netherlands is in favor of a larger innovation budget. We think that’s an excellent idea! But we also believe that this money could come from the resources that the European Commission has at its disposal if we were to continue to contribute the same percentage as we do now. Our GNP is on the rise, so our contribution will in any event deliver more money to the EU with the current, unchanged percentage of our GNP.”

Not mentioned in the budget

It makes more sense for the EU to restructure its budget and adapt it to the demands of our time, says Kenkel. That is what Von der Leyen also said in her speech yesterday. In Von der Leyen’s opinion, the MFF (otherwise known as the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework) should not be seen as a simple calculation of expenditure, but rather as a policy instrument that will modernize the European Union’s budget.

That might be the case, except up until now the problem has been that you cannot discern this in the document that the European Commission sent to the member states last May and which the member states are currently negotiating. It does not say, for example, that the Horizon Innovation Fund should be increased by €20 billion. Whereas the new European Commission does want to use this extra money to tie into specific industrial policy. Something that is new for the European Union, as the French EU Commissioner for the Internal Market and Industry, Thierry Breton, said to the European Parliament during his hearing last month.

European Commissioner Thierry Breton wants to tie industrial policy to innovation paid for with Horizon money.

Other expenditure areas

One way in which the extra €20 billion could still be included in the budget is for the European Commission to submit a separate additional proposal to the member states. That’s what Kenkel from the PV in Brussels says. Nevertheless, he thinks that this isn’t very likely as this is a cumbersome process and the negotiations are already underway. He believes that it would be more logical to discuss the matter during ongoing negotiations.

Then there is also the question of how important the member states regard the growth of the innovation fund compared to that of other expenditure. Such as for the common agricultural policy and the cohesion fund. Funding for the development of poor regions must be paid from this. The European Commission actually wants to cut 5% off both of these expenditure areas. And that is definitely something that the countries that benefit most from these funds do not want to happen.

Read also: Aviation industry to European Commission: ‘money is needed to develop zero-emission aircraft’

€88 billion on offer

The signs are not very favorable in this respect, says Guillaume Gillet, He is the director of InnoEnergy in Brussels, an investment company that invests money from private investors and the Horizon Fund in promising, innovative start-ups in the energy field. “It is said that the Finnish chairmanship wants to reduce the budget for Horizon to €88 billion. It will only be possible to raise it to €120 billion if the European Parliament fights very hard for that.”

The question is how bad would that be? After all, European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has already announced that part of the funds for cohesion and agriculture can be used for innovation in the agricultural sector and for the development of rural areas. The intention is that these funds will thereby contribute to making Europe environmentally sustainable.

Read also: European Commissioner Timmermans wants CO2 tax at the EU’s outer border

The difference with financing innovation via these funds, however, is that the funds are distributed by the governments of the member states. Who in turn allocate these to their national constituencies. It now remains to be seen as to what extent this will benefit both European cooperation and European coordination in terms of industrial policy.

Not enough money for scale-ups

According to investor Gillet, the European Commission is also investing directly via Horizon in innovative start-ups who would otherwise be unable to raise money as their profitability is uncertain. That’s going well for now. Although a larger Horizon Fund would make this support more robust, Gillet states. So far, the problem has been that there is not enough money to invest in the further growth of start-ups. This makes it difficult for them to become fully-fledged companies that are able to grow and flourish in Europe. It is precisely these scale-ups that provide employment as well as develop knowledge and bring prosperity. “American and Asian investors are investing money in them. That’s because of their more aggressive culture when it comes to high-risk capital investment. Consequently, Europe is losing a number of successful start-ups.”

Read also: ‘Europe must invest in a hub for collaborative robots in SMEs’

Whereas these are in fact what you would prefer to hold on to. Which is also what Von der Leyen said in her speech yesterday. Whether she will be successful in this respect over the coming period will become clear when the new MFF is mapped out next year.

EU Commissioner Vestager to present new AI law at the start of 2020

Over the next three months, European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will draft a new European law for AI. As of December, she will be responsible for the digitization of the European market. She plans to present her new AI law in March. After that, the European Parliament and the governments and parliaments of the Member States will have to approve her new AI law.

The new AI law is to lay out the rules regarding the collection and sharing of data by, among others, the large American tech companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google whose internet platforms are being used on a massive scale by European citizens. At the moment there is only a guideline for e-privacy and one set of regulations for data protection (GDPR). The new law must include rules that make the collectors and distributors of data liable for any abuse use of this data.

Nightmare for the US

The greatest nightmare for the high profile big tech companies in the US is her intention to adopt new tax regulations following on from the new AI law. This should apply to internet platforms all over the world which make money from consumers in European countries. In recent years, Vestager has already taken Apple to court for tax evasion. She imposed a fine of 13 billion euros on them for this.

As far as she is concerned, the new tax regulations that she has in mind should be applicable worldwide. If she cannot do this because, for example, some countries do not want to cooperate, she said that the European Commission will continue to impose fines on non-European companies on an individual basis if they pay insufficient tax in the EU.

Breaking up Google and Facebook

She may also impose fines if American big tech companies abuse their dominant market position. She has done so in the past few years while she was European Commissioner for Competition. If these fines do not lead to an improvement in their behaviour on the European market, she wants to break up the American business conglomerates. That is what she said in response to questions from Paul Tang, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament. Tang is also member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats on behalf of this PvdA party (the Dutch Labor Party). Vestager then told Tang that she had the means to do this. She did not specify what kind of means she has at her disposal.

Member of the European Parliament Paul Tang wants Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to break open American ‘big tech’ companies.

Gaining citizen’s trust

With its new European AI law, Vestager said they want to allay the fears of European citizens. In particular those who currently lack faith in the digitization of society. She says this is necessary as she believes there are two types of companies. The type that is digital – and the type that will soon become digital. In other words, sooner or later all citizens will have to participate in the digitization of everyday life, so she wants to make sure that the Internet is not intimidating to them.

In the second place, she wants AI to be used to make the citizens’ lives easier rather than more difficult. She wants to prevent digital platforms from collecting data via AI in order to influence the choice of consumers and businesses so that they can earn money from them. It was precisely for this reason that during her previous term as European Commissioner for Competition, she imposed a fine of 4.3 billion euros on the search engine Google.

More rules, less innovation?

The question is whether the new rules for AI will not stand in the way of innovation. Nicola Beer, an MEP from the Renew Group in the European Parliament, wanted to know whether Vestager had thought about how she intended to preserve Europe’s leading role in AI innovation. Vestager replied that she was looking for a more balanced situation. According to her, European citizens should benefit from the innovations that AI brings. Yet at the same time also be protected against their eventual misuse.

Europarliamentarian Nicola Beer wants to know how Vestager will ensure that the EU will remain a leader in the AI field.

Meanwhile, the initial reactions from the AI group of professionals to Vestager’s plans for new legislation have been quite reserved. “I find it a bit vague that Vestager says that AI sometimes makes life more difficult.” That’s what Buster Franken says, AI entrepreneur and developer from TU/e. “It is true that AI influences your choices via Google. But that can also make your life a lot easier.”

‘Small-scale AI companies in the EU are the victims’

Franken believes that there is a danger that a new law will burden smaller AI companies with far too many rules. “We already have a hard time finding capital to invest in our innovations. If new rules are added now, that will adversely affect us. It also means that you have extra work in order to comply with them. Maybe we don’t have the money for this. While this new law is supposed to combat abuse by large companies such as Google and Facebook.”

Read also: ‘Europe must invest in a hub for collaborative robots in SMEs’

“The point is namely that companies like Google can abuse data because they have loads of money. If there is a new law, they will undoubtedly be able to comply with it. Then they will simply look for another route. They have enough money to hire an army of elite lawyers. Small AI companies don’t have that.”

European Commissioner Timmermans wants CO2 tax at the EU’s outer border

CO2 uitstoot schoorstenen

Dutch European Commissioner Frans Timmermans (who will be responsible for climate issues) wants to introduce a CO2 tax at the outer border of the European Union. This is in order to avoid products that have not been manufactured in a climate-neutral way. He announced this measure during his approval hearing at the European Parliament. There they are appointing the new European Commission which will take up office next month. According to Timmermans, this is the only way to get the European climate law passed which he is to present this spring. The exact date on which this border tax is to come into effect should be revealed in this climate law. It will apply to all Member States.

A 55% reduction by 2030

This climate law ought to include information on how the Member States will make their economies climate-neutral. CO2 emissions must be reduced by 55% by 2030, Timmermans announced. That is 10% more than what was originally agreed to. By 2050, CO2 emissions need to zero out on balance. With that commitment, in two weeks’ time he will start his mandate as European Commissioner for Climate Change. His most important task will be to deliver a so-called ‘Green Deal’. The new climate law is an important part of this. Along with that, he wants to overhaul legislation on greenhouse gas emissions and energy.

European Commissioner Frans Timmermans announces the CO2 border tax in the European Parliament Image: still live streaming

The problem is not that achieving CO2-neutral production is not technically possible, says Erik Klooster. He is managing director of VNPI, a Dutch association which brings together the major petrochemical companies (together with the chemical and metal industries, who are the main producers of CO2), such as Shell and Esso. “It is,” he states. The problem is that making the industry CO2-neutral makes manufacturing much more expensive. This makes the industry less competitive compared to industry in countries that are not implementing any climate measures. If there is no such border tax, European industry will be forced out of business. “Esso has been calling for this kind of carbon adjustment or carbon border tax for years,” says Klooster. “It is the only way to make Europe climate-neutral.”

A leading role

That is also what Commissioner Timmermans told the European Parliament, who will have to approve his new climate legislation next year. “We shouldn’t want to bring in products that are cheaper because they have not taken the environment into account. I think that such a CO2 border tax will be subject to an assessment from the WTO. If, for example, a country such as China or India also starts to produce in a CO2-neutral way, we will drop that tax on their products.”

Also read: Former Secretary of State of the United States: Quadruple the CO2 price and let the polluter pay

Empty gas fields

That’s also the purpose of such a levy, says Klooster. “The EU’s share in global CO2 emissions is relatively small. So we don’t have to do it for that sake.” The EU, and the Netherlands in particular, can play an important pioneering role by involving other countries in the world such (as India and China) in the production of clean energy. “Industry in the Netherlands is geographically close to each other. There are enough empty gas fields available in the next few decades for storing CO2 that has been emitted and captured. It is therefore cheaper to build a pipeline for CO2 transport to an empty gas field than it is in England, for example. Industry is scattered all over the country there.

Extracting CO2 from air

Another method of achieving CO2-neutral production is to capture the greenhouse gas and bind it to hydrogen via a chemical process. This creates a synthetic fuel that can be reused. This is also a way to ensure that aircraft that don’t fly electrically and therefore continue to emit CO2 will still be able to operate in a climate-neutral way, says Klooster. “You can extract the amount of CO2 that an aircraft produces out of the air, and then store or process it.”

Also read: Aviation industry to European Commission: ‘money is needed to develop zero-emission aircraft’

National Parliaments

The question is whether national parliaments are prepared to sign the climate legislation that Timmermans will be proposing. For example, the Polish Member of the European Parliament Anna Zalewska ( from the Conservatives and Reformists faction) said at the Timmermans hearing prior to his appointment as European Commissioner for Climate last month, that she feared it would destroy Polish industry. Much of it runs on coal. “Hundreds of billions of euros are needed to make the transition possible. We just don’t have that.”

Euro-parliamentarian Anna Zalewska, from the Conservatives and Reformists faction, says that Poland does not have enough money to abandon coal.

Money for Poland en Greece

Timmermans replied that money had to be sent to countries such as Poland and Greece because they are unable to pay for the energy transition themselves. “My grandparents were miners in Heerlen. When the mines were still open, Heerlen was the second richest city in the Netherlands. After the closure of the mines, Heerlen changed into one of the poorest municipalities in the Netherlands. We must make sure that we prevent this from happening in the European regions that are currently dependent on coal.”

Also read: BMW Director: ‘Make recharging electric cars as easy as recharging smartphones’

Timmermans stressed that there is absolutely no future for the coal industry. He wants to work together with national and local authorities, the European Investment Bank and make use of existing EU funds for this transition by diverting them towards making the EU climate-neutral.

Cost: 200 billion euros per year

An important part of the money needed to make poor, coal-dependent regions climate-neutral should come from richer EU countries such as The Netherlands and Germany. Their national parliaments must approve the new climate law, including the redistribution of financial resources. Commissioner Timmermans predicted that it would take in total €200 billion a year over the next five years to make the EU climate-neutral. “But the Member States are almost as stingy as the Dutch,” he said. “They have to open their wallets.”

When Hungary discovers solar energy, it’s time to pay attention …

Hungary has a huge potential for solar energy. In order to achieve the European climate targets, the country would do well to invest in Photovoltaics (PV). This development is gradually getting off the ground, and foreign investors are more than welcome. In the land of Orbán, however, vigilance is of the essence.

The proportion of renewable energy resources in the EU must reach 30% by 2030. This has been stipulated in the European climate legislation adopted last year which is in line with the agreements of the Paris Climate Conference in 2015.

In Hungary, however, as in the other Central European countries, this percentage is still very low. The expected results for 2030 leave much to be desired. This is evident in a report from the University of Cambridge – ‘The energy transition in Central and Eastern Europe: The business case for higher ambition.’

Renewable energy sources

In contrast to countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovenia, hydroelectric power stations in Hungary are not a realistic option. This is due to its lack of sufficient topographical relief. Wind energy is not exactly a viable option either. Especially since the Orbán government has banned the construction of wind turbines within a 12 km radius of populated areas.

Hungary currently mainly relies on nuclear energy along with fossil fuels such as coal. Apart from the moral dilemmas associated with nuclear energy, however, there are also a number of other tricky issues. For example, the nuclear power plant in Paks is located on a geological fault line. This was revealed in documentation that the investigative news site Átlátszó found out about in 2017. Which is at odds with the prevailing international directives in force. Furthermore, the tanks where nuclear waste is stored do not meet current safety requirements. A range of environmental impacts are feared as a result of the construction of the new Paks 2 power station. Such as the warming up of the nearby Danube river as a result of the discharge of coolant water. Finally, the construction of the new power station will be financed by the Russian state-owned company Rosatom. Which in turn will make the country economically dependent on Putin’s Russia.

Market growth for photovoltaics

Solar energy is a serious, and above all, genuinely sustainable option for Hungary. With an average of 1250 kWh/m2 of sunlight per year, comparable to central France, Hungary has a considerable potential for solar energy. That’s what the CISL report has revealed. Even though the development of solar energy is still very much in its infancy. Nonetheless, this now seems to be evolving. Hungary plans to invest in the construction of solar energy parks over the next ten years. Although future prospects for growth are not entirely clear. The Hungarian National Energy and Climate Plan foresees an increase from 700 MW to 6645 MW by 2030.

‘Hungary is going to expand its solar energy capacity by ten times between now and 2030!’ Hungarian President János Áder jubilantly announced at the UN climate summit in Chile on 23 September. Although he remained rather vague about the implementation of these plans. Earlier this year in May, in an interview with the pro-government newspaper Magyar Idök, the same Áder even spoke of a twenty-fold increase in capacity compared to 2014, i.e. 80 MW. Yet this would bring Hungary up to a modest capacity of 1,600 MW. Reason for a celebration? Not really.

According to renewable energy expert László Magyar from the NGO Energiaklub, these figures should be taken with the requisite grain of salt. If you assume a capacity of 1000 MW, as Magyar explains, which is actually the case at the moment, and if you then increase than by a factor of 10, you would end up with 10,000 MW in 10 years’ time. Not necessarily infeasible, Magyar contends. However, this would require major investments. Including the expansion of the current network capacity.

Foreign investors sought

Solar energy in Hungary is in the process of becoming a booming business, at least that much is clear. In recent years, incentives have been provided so as to promote the construction of solar energy parks. Since January 2017, for instance, a subsidy scheme (METÁR) similar to the Dutch SDE+ has been in force in support of renewable energy. Which offers to pay a return on investment depending on the size of the installations.

The Hungarian authorities will also hold a large-scale bidding round at the end of this year in order to attract investors. Prior to this, the international events agency Solarplaza, based in the Netherlands, is organizing a conference in Budapest on November the 14th this year. This is in cooperation with Photon Energy. During this conference, interested parties from outside Hungary will be able to obtain information on the legal, technical and financial conditions and possibilities with regard to investments in Hungarian solar parks. According to Photon Energy, it is relatively easy for experienced foreign investors to obtain a loan. As they would have the confidence of Hungarian banks. More so than that of home-grown investors who have no relevant experience. Aside from that, the legal conditions for investing in solar parks in Hungary are ‘transparent’, in the view of Photon Energy.

Corruption

What does raise some questions, however, is that Hungary is currently facing an Article 7 procedure, not least because of its misappropriation o EU subsidies. One of the cases being investigated is a business deal between István Tiborcz, Orbán’s own son-in-law. His former business partners are currently in the process of constructing a mega solar park made up of 422200 solar panels, capable of generating 10.1 MW. This is located near Herend in the foothills north of Lake Balaton. Not to mention the Turkish businessman and Erdogan supporter Adnan Polat, a loyal business friend of Orbán. He was spotted with the Hungarian Prime Minister in China last year. Where he was in connection with a business deal concerning the financing of an arsenal of solar energy parks.

A genuinely sustainable alternative

In any event, it is likely that a lot of solar parks will be built in Hungary in the coming years. This will provide Hungarians with a sustainable alternative. Not only as a substitute for environmentally polluting fossil fuels such as coal, but also for the severely outdated nuclear power plant at Paks. Its expansion is also being financed by Russian millions. Hopefully, the local population will also benefit from all of this. As in terms of creating long-term jobs, as stipulated in the EU directives for national energy and climate plans.

Climate Ambassador Mary Robinson: ‘Without an ambitious Green Deal, society will break down.’

The former President of Ireland and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, believes that the European Commission should speed up the transition process of making energy generation more sustainable within the Member States. As a matter of urgency, we should get rid of fossil fuels. Otherwise, we will not be able to produce in a CO2 neutral way by 2050. She founded her own climate foundation, Climate Justice, in 2010, which stands up for the victims of climate change.

Robinson spoke with entrepreneurs who have start-ups in sustainable energy during the congress of the European investor InnoEnergy held last week in Paris.

Afterwards, we asked her three questions which we also submitted to Diego Pavía, the CEO of InnoEnergy. In contrast to investor Pavía, Robinson foresees resistance on the part of a number of member states because they appear to be persisting with coal-burning energy generation for now.

How do you see the roadmap towards 2030 for Europe? With the emission of the greenhouse gases having to be halved by then and completely carbon-free by 2050. What is the least that needs to be done in order to meet these targets?

“The first thing that needs to happen is that countries as well as large industrial companies commit themselves to the target of carbon neutrality by 2050. And that’s where they have to start operating from. We have a coalition of countries that are committed to carbon neutrality. There are about 20 countries and cities around the world that are working towards this. Hopefully this goal will be achieved by 2030. Then we will have to work on specific issues. Which, in the words of the UN Secretary-General, means ‘no new coal from 2020 onward.’ We must phase out the existing coal-fired power stations. We need innovation instead. Scientists told us in their report that limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees can be done if we have the political will.

I am particularly interested in how we can mobilize that political will from the grass roots level to urge governments to act. I see it happening: I see school children, young people, Extinction Rebellion members and female leaders standing up like never before. There are companies that are not based on fossil fuels, investors that no longer want to have anything to do with stranded assets [companies or shares in companies that can quickly decline in value because of the environmental damage they cause, ed.], philanthropic organizations, new trade unions, etc. All these parties together form a loose, wide-ranging movement. Which should now focus on various regions and countries and perhaps approach these from different perspectives. You see a very unusual alliance emerging. You see business leaders and investors joining civil society. You see women leaders standing up and trying to encourage governments and companies to take certain steps.”

What do you expect from the Green Deal from Commissioner Frans Timmermans, the paper on how the EU will achieve its 2030 and 2050 targets?

“I’m not sure if I’m well-informed enough to know about that. I am aware that there is a problem with abandoning coal. I think that the EU Member States have different levels of ambition in this area. So it is very important that the European Commission tries to encourage all countries to be more ambitious about leaving coal behind. On that point, for example, I am impressed by Denmark. At the climate summit, that country promised to emit 77% fewer greenhouse gases by 2030 [instead of the agreed 45%, ed.]. I think this is the most ambitious target so far.”

Do you see any obstacles to the adoption of the Green Deal by the Member States?

“It is very important at the moment for Europe to manifest itself as a leader and to demonstrate ambition. Europe used to be like that in the past. However, they have lost that leadership a little bit. They really need to step up their efforts. I think that requires major momentum within the various countries of the EU. One that will encourage leaders to understand that we are talking about a safe future for our children and grandchildren. Europe must take the lead. We have a historical responsibility for that. We are also in a position to take the lead. We have economies that can lead this energy transition and, in my opinion, should lead it. Otherwise, we will increasingly have to deal with the breakdown of society. People no longer tolerate ‘business as usual’. This breakdown can take many forms. It can manifest itself in an increasing number of lawsuits against companies, pressure from shareholders on companies, movements that rise up like Extinction Rebellion. They can be profit warnings from investors in companies that point out exposure to certain risks. If we don’t get an ambitious Green Deal, we’ll see more destabilization.”

But within the different EU Member States there are also movements and political parties that do not believe that climate change exists and who will oppose such an ambitious Green Deal.

“That’s right. Populism is on the rise. There is a backlash. But young people mainly look at the science. And the science is very clear. So I think this will be decisive. I’ve been asked to be the patroness of the International Science Council. This is a council that was created last year as the result of a merger between the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC). The importance of this is to bring the hard natural sciences and the social sciences together. This is crucial because this council is a body that wants to be the voice of science on a global level. I feel very strongly that we must continue to believe in science. That we have to keep science in mind under all circumstances. Science is the answer to the question of how we should tackle climate change. More and more the reports tell us that the climate problem is more urgent than previously thought and that the climate is changing faster. We must be vigilant in dealing with this situation.”

High-level French official: “Involve low-income households in the energy transition”

The French Government, like the other EU Member States, is faced with the complex task of involving the entire population in the process of making the French economy climate neutral by 2050. As it turns out, there are concerns about this. “It’s not just about devising the very best new renewable energy technology,” said Laurent Michel, Director General of the French Ministry of Ecology and Solidarity, at InnoEnergy’s conference on innovative energy start-ups held in Paris last week.

Low incomes

It is very important that scientists invent new and better technology, Michel pointed out. For example, think of better batteries for electric cars that will have a greater range as a result. “But this should be accessible to all low-income households as well.”

“They must also be able to participate in the energy transition. The transition to products that use renewable energy will have the greatest impact on them.” After all, they have very little money to spare and therefore run the risk of running into problems if they have to buy new appliances that they cannot afford. At the same time, subsidies for innovative energy applications are paid out of the tax revenue that they themselves contribute to.

That this paradox exists is obvious, even if the French senior official did not explicitly refer to it.

Millions for energy start-ups

As is the case with the other European member states, France has prepared a roadmap to meet the EU’s 2030 target. Each EU member state must emit 45% less CO2 than it does at present. All economic processes must be free of CO2 emissions by 2050. This task requires a major upheaval of the industry. In France, this industry is predominantly based on energy from fossil and nuclear sources. France will have to make the switch to the production of renewable energy. The same applies to French households.

According to the French climate change official, the government is committed to subsidizing start-ups that are developing forms for renewable energy generation or energy conservation. Many millions are being made available for this. In the so-named PPE plan, launched at the beginning of this year, the French Government promised to double the production of renewable energy within 10 years. Wind and solar energy will be used first and foremost for this purpose. The country also wants to close four to six nuclear power stations. France emits relatively little CO2 within Europe, mainly due to the large use of nuclear power stations. Several of these are outdated.

Sociological framework

Nevertheless, the aim is for everyone to be able to benefit from this, Michel said. “It is important for the state to develop a sociological framework whereby all French citizens will be able to participate”.

An initial condition is that French citizens first accept that the transition will actually take place. Otherwise, they will not take part. “That’s a challenge,” according to Michel. But once that has been achieved, our citizens must be given the opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to do so. Which means that if they want to recycle plastic so as to conserve raw materials and energy, they need to be able to do that somewhere. That’s what the French government must do when it comes to guiding society.

Call for proposals

The goal is for French buildings to undergo thorough renovations which will drastically cut down on their energy consumption, Michel states. Transport must be innovated. Engines should run as much as possible on electricity and hydrogen. In his view, this also applies to heavy trucks and other industrial transport.

Start-up entrepreneurs in France who have come up with ideas for this are able to count on subsidies from the French state. “A call for proposals was issued in September for this,” Michel says.

Director-General Laurent Michel of the French Ministry of Ecology and Solidarity Photo: InnoEnergy

Three tips from Nobel laureates to EU politicians on how to encourage innovation

Towards the end of the European Innovation Days, acclaimed scientists advised the European Commission and politicians on what to look out for when funding research with money from the EU’s Horizon Fund (amount: about €100 billion). These grants for scientific research are distributed by the European Research Council from the EU. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist in order to understand the tips given by the leading scientists involved in this research council to the European Commission. After all, they are concerned with freedom, money and an open mind. Plus, needless to say, a good dose of curiosity.

Tip 1: Focus on the working principle, not on the application

Ben Feringa is Professor of Molecular Sciences at the University of Groningen. He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016. Feringa built the world’s smallest motor, the nanomotor. He wanted to know how molecules move without having to think about what he was getting out of it. It was by chance that he discovered how molecules only move forwards and not backwards. This enabled him to build molecular motors. He is presently working on a coating that cleans itself by building in miniature nanomachines. These can be applied to solar panels, processed in paints for houses and used in windows that you will no longer have to wipe clean because of the molecular motors in them, he explained. “To me, it was about understanding the principle of how molecular movement functions. Without knowing beforehand what to use it for. If you understand the principle, that leads to so many innovations.”

Tip 2: Let young scientists think independently

Jean-Marie Lehn is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Strasbourg and won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for the chemical basis of molecular recognition. He wanted to know why certain molecules seek each other out while others do not, which he refers to as the sociology of molecules. As a result, he discovered that they fit together like a key in a lock. In his view, it is important for the European Research Council to provide grants to talented young scientists. This is so that they can think independently from professors and carry out scientific research as they see fit. This is also how Europe will build up a group of excellent scientific researchers who think independently. According to Lehn, independence also means responsibility. This means that young scientists deserve scholarships; nonetheless, their research must also ultimately deliver results.

Tip 3: Give talented researchers plenty of time

Emmanuelle Charpentier is the academic director of the Pathogens division of the Max Planck Institute. She won the Kavli Prize in 2018. She is a microbiologist and has discovered, among other things, how bacteria defend themselves against viruses. The knowledge gained here is used in gene technology. She advocates that there should be enough time to carry out research. Otherwise, fundamental research will not be possible. “I hear from young scientists that they only have three years in which to invent something. That’s way too short.” A better idea would be to provide scholarships which allow for long-term research – like 10 to 20 years – so that scientists have time to think. ,,Politicians want to see quick results. That’s not the right way forward”, added former European Research Council president Helga Nowotny who chaired the discussion. ,,Research and thought need time to mature.”

From left to right: Professors Emanuelle Charpentier, Ben Feringa, discussion leader and Emeritus Professor Helga Nowotny, Virginijus Siksnys, Christine Petit and Jean Marie Lehn

EU research into the use of fields, manure and forests aims to restore the environment

In the next five years, Europe has to invest in developing systems that measure and explain as to why some agricultural crops are growing well or others aren’t. That is the opinion of advisors from the European Commission. They want to know how European forests are being used by consumers. As well as what conditions farms need in order to be able to produce in an optimal, circular way. One of the aims is to ensure that less waste is released into the environment.

In a nutshell, this is the result of a discussion between scientific advisors about planning research paid for by the European innovation fund Horizon. This is how they will try to conserve nature and available water. This should also prevent a further depletion of biodiversity in forests and agricultural areas.

Sensors in fields

Agricultural engineer Helena Gomez Macpherson of the Association for Sustainable Agriculture IAS-CSIC in Spain said that the EU must invest in research into a more efficient use of water in crop cultivation. This is to prevent dehydration and soil acidification.

There are sensors on the market that farmers can use in their fields. They may use these to gauge how their crops are growing. However, Gomez notes that farmers won’t find out why their crops are progressing or not with these sensors. Subsequently, farmers sometimes do not know if problems are due to a lack of irrigation or an excess. Nor do they know what state the soil is in or what the effect of fertilization is having on the environment around their fields. Because this is not the type of information that the sensors pass on. It is possible that they are not taking appropriate measures as a result.

Intelligent fertilization systems

If farmers were to be provided with intelligent irrigation and fertilization systems which use sensors that are also affordable and accurate, (which she considers not to be the case at the moment), that would save them a lot of money. In her opinion, existing sensors do not do this. This would require European research funding from the Horizon Fund, which has a budget of around €100 billion.

Water use during dry periods

The aim is that the environment will improve because farmers will be able to use water and manure much more precisely and sparingly. They will be better able to determine which crops are thriving well in their fields and which ones aren’t. This should also alleviate the burden on the environment.

Climate change, (whereby certain areas in southern Spain, for example, are extremely dry in summer), makes research into environmentally friendly and effective cultivation methods absolutely vital, says Gomez.

Greater use of forests by city-dwellers

The problems are very different when it comes to forestry, as one of the recommendations made by the German professor Georg Winkel from the European Forest Institute (EFI) has shown. He sees a shift in the use of forests, which accounts for some 33 percent of European woodlands. Cities have become more closely involved with forests than in the past. As an example, there is a trend in Germany towards kindergartens in the woods, he explains. Known as ‘Waldkindergarten‘, there are now around 2000 of these as far as he is aware of. Plus there are more and more cultural activities that take place in the forests, such as funerals. If it is up to him, there will be research into how Europeans would most like to use their forests, what the advantages and disadvantages are, and how we can protect them.

Biodiversity under pressure

Albeit to a lesser extent than in agriculture, Winkel states that there is a clear trend that biodiversity in forests is also coming under pressure. He also wants European scientists to work with forest scientists on other continents, such as China, in order to exchange knowledge like this. Forests in the EU are not the only ones. As far as Winkel is concerned, a policy will be put in place to deal with products on the market which are linked to the loss of tropical forests outside of Europe.

Less soy from South America

One way to become less dependent on cattle feed such as soy from the US and South America is to reuse nutrients in agriculture that would otherwise become waste, according to Ghent professor Erik Meers, who specializes in bio-regeneration. In this context, he is focused on research into methods which will turn farming in the EU into a circular industry.

Manure as a source of energy

An example that he gave was the direct use of fresh manure for energy production. That way, the farmer avoids, among other things, the build-up of manure and the release of nitrogen into the soil. This is beneficial to the environment. Moreover, the European farmer saves money on energy because they then become an energy producer themselves.

Hardt Hyperloop to go on tour around Europe with their mobile experience center starting early 2020

Early next year the Delft-based company Hardt Hyperloop will start a tour around European cities with their mobile experience center. There, consumers will be able to become acquainted with this new way of traveling, whereby passengers are seated in a capsule that is shot through a vacuum tube at a speed of up to a thousand kilometers per hour. That’s what Hardt Hyperloop commercial director Mars Geuze said at the annual Business Booster conference held by InnoEnergy in Paris, InnoEnergy is a European investment company that has already invested 5 million euros in the development of the company from Delft.

Wherever they and their experience center set up, the founders of Hardt Hyperloop hope that the tour will interest municipalities and provinces in investing in the construction of a station platform and perhaps a part of the tube network.

Test site

Geuze doesn’t want to reveal which cities Hardt has in mind quite yet. Discussions are still ongoing about where the test site with a 3 km long tube should be built. “We are probably only going to cities where a station platform will be built. They are the ones who are most interested in participating in the project,” Geuze says.

Hardt will only announce which cities the mobile experience center will be set up once it is clear where the test sites will be located. It is likely that it will be installed at central railway stations. This is where the boarding platforms for the hyperloop are expected to be in the future.

InnoEnergy invests in start-ups which focus on sustainable energy. The Hardt Hyperloop should become an alternative for regional flights. According to Hardt, the Hyperloop will use less energy than a train and is as fast as an airplane.

Since the vehicle is electric and moves through a magnetic field, there are no CO2 emissions or other harmful gases.

Clock is ticking

Geuze confirmed that the idea for a hyperloop has been around for more than a hundred years. But now that CO2 emissions will have to be halved in Europe by 2030, the clock is ticking. When Elon Musk first launched the competition a few years ago to design a hyperloop, we all sat down together with a few students in Delft. We then very quickly listed the options and decided that this had to be it. Our concept fitted on the back of a beer mat, so to speak.”

The aim is to have an operational network for the transportation of passengers across Europe within 15 years, states Geuze. Freight transport via the hyperloop should be possible sooner because it is less complex to comply with the safety requirements. After all, no people are involved in that.

Saudi Arabia

According to Geuze, countries from other continents are also expressing interest. We have received requests for information from Saudi Arabia, for instance. They want to know what our standard will look like. Then they don’t have to come up with it themselves.”

Model for the European network of tubes through which the Hardt Hyperloop is to float. Source: Hardt

Europe wants the causes of biodiversity decline translated into politics

Butterflies, bees, flies – some of whose species we no longer see around anymore because they have become extinct as a result of extensive, densely asphalted areas in between green areas. Plant species that are disappearing, an ocean full of plastic which causes fish to die because they eat it and can”t digest it. Everyone is now well aware of these problems that the behaviour of humans and businesses are causing in nature. But how do we resolve this? How do we do something about it? That is the key question that the EU must answer over the next five years. Society must go through a systemic change in order to prevent the mass extinction of animals and plants on earth,” according to scientific advisors from the European Commission. They therefore want money for research into the causes of the decline in biodiversity so that political policy may be based on scientific results.

Sounds logical, you might think. After all, a decision to ban environmentally harmful fuels, for instance, will have to be based on facts.

New direction

Yet this direction taken by the European Commission under the leadership of President Ursula von der Leyen is new. “For the first time in my career, the impact on biodiversity is going to play a role in political decisions,” said John Bell, director of the Bioeconomy in DG Research & Innovation department at the European Commission. It seemed as if he was relieved about this, because so far the subject had been left in the dark. Nobody really took it seriously. Up until now, that is.

John Bell, senior official of the European Commission states that biodiversity is playing a role in political decisions for the first time.

Political battle over land

For all decisions in all policy areas, the goal is to identify the damage or contribution that a project has on biodiversity. This will have to apply to all business cases across all fronts. As to how this can be achieved is likely to become a political battle.

First of all, the issues surrounding biodiversity take place on land and water which do not fall under the supervision of the European Union. That is how a British scientist, who attended the discussion during the Innovation Days in Brussels last week, reacted to the European Commission’s proposed plans. Member states decide for themselves how they want to organize their own land in their country. Which is not so easy to address. That’s how it is regulated by law.

Who pays the bill?

According to Professor of Environmental Studies Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers at Radboud University in Nijmegen, when it comes to the system change needed to restore and protect biodiversity, the solution is to pass the bill on to the parties that are responsible for the damage and who are making the most profit from it. Otherwise, the section of the population that cannot afford the transition to a biodiversity-friendly economy will not support it. To a large extent, the perpetrators are the large-scale businesses that produce, sell and emit harmful substances. In other words, multinationals such as major oil companies. Yet they were not at the table during this discussion. And there was also no one who spoke up about this. Which might well prove to be an obstacle in the way of achieving this objective.

New kind of business case

In the coming years, the work that needs to be done is to make sure that the core of a good business case is no longer only based on making money. The way in which a business burdens or benefits the environment and biodiversity must also be factored in, according to Visseren. That also requires research paid for by Europe.

The fact that it is urgent, which has of course been known for a long time, was underlined by Visseren-Hamakers. She used a slide for this which made clear, among other things, that a total of one million animal species are at risk of extinction. On another slide she showed that humankind is severely overburdening nature, including water, soil and air, and that this is a negative trend. In her view, the ecosystem is at present like a piece of cloth that is decaying at a rapid rate and whose threads are falling apart. “Makers of environmental policy have never managed to reverse this trend over the past 50 years.”

Money for research

Preparation of a strategic research plan with funding from the European Horizon Fund (around €100 billion) is underway and should be made available before the end of the year. This should help in reversing the trend.

‘Europe must invest in a hub for collaborative robots in SMEs’

The European Union must have a robotics innovation hub where small and medium-sized enterprises that collaborate with others in their businesses will be able to test new robotic applications. With this message, Bram Vanderborght of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel opened the discussion between experts on the future of the collaborative robot industry during the European Innovation Days last week in Brussels.

It is expected that millions of euros from the Horizon Europe innovation fund will go towards the development of this hub. The Horizon Research Fund is worth a total of around 100 billion euros.

Not very many small companies are testing robots

According to Vanderborght, it is primarily large companies that are now taking part in European-funded innovative robotics projects with a view to improving their business processes. Smaller companies usually do not have the opportunities to do this. They miss the boat as a consequence.

The development of collaborative robots for enabling companies to work faster, better or more comfortably, is in reality still very much in its infancy here in Europe. There are no proper rules yet for outlining what an autonomous operating robot may and may not do. Such as what data it may or may not collect from its work environment and how it should deal with it.

Moreover, there is a problem with liability, Vanderborght states. Here in Brussels, an experiment is currently underway in a factory where robots are not allowed to do certain work because they cannot be insured against liability. Agreements have to be made with insurers on these matters.

‘Fear of robots is not warranted’

The chief technology officer of the Italian robot multinational Comau (part of FiatChrysler), Pietro Ottavis, states that collaborative robots will be widely used in the automotive industry in about ten years time. By then they will be more accessible than they are today. They will be mobile, portable and intelligent,” he predicts. “Robots are tools for human beings. There’s nothing to be afraid of. After all, humankind has been using tools for more than 100,000 years.”

Examples of the kind of collaborative robots that he is referring to are robots that help on the shop floor by packing products at temperatures below freezing. Think about butchers. This is not a pleasant job for people. It is not healthy to have to work in a very cold room all the time.”

Lost suitcases at the airport

Another example that can relieve people of heavy work is a robot that helps to sort and retrieve lost suitcases and bags at airports. We are all familiar with that problem,” says Ottavis. The staff won’t have to do the heavy lifting any longer. What’s more, there’s a good chance that a robot will look and find something more quickly.

Professor Sigrid Brell-Cokcan from the German University of Aachen, and chairperson of the Association for Robots in Architecture, says that she has seen robots in China assisting in housing construction. She anticipates this development for Europe as well. The use of robots makes work in the construction industry safer. Almost one fifth of all accidents occur in the construction industry. It is safer to let robots do the heavy work. People who work there, such as construction workers, won’t have to suffer anymore from complaints with their lungs, hands or other body parts. They will no longer have to retire at the age of 50 because their body is worn out by heavy work.”

Robot construction workers

Robot construction workers should also make houses cheaper in the future. In addition, healthcare institutions will save money because they will no longer have to treat injured construction workers.

A major problem that European robot companies have yet to resolve is that there are no unequivocal rules governing the production of robots nor for the software used to program them. We have to have these, Vanderborght says. A robotic arm from one manufacturer must be able to connect to a robotic component from another manufacturer.

Uniform EU regulations needed for robots

The various robots must also be able to work together. Their interfaces must be better connected so that they are able to work fast. At present, they are still working too slowly, which means that their productivity is not high enough,” says Minna Lanz, Finnish professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Tampere. The robots also need to be able to comprehend the regulations themselves. They are required to work safely according to the regulations as well. In the meantime, Europeans need be trained in the use of robots and, if necessary, overcome the fear of using them.

Competition from Asia

All parties concerned must be involved in drafting the regulations for robots: the companies that make robots, but also consumers who can thereby indicate what they find acceptable and what they do not consider to be acceptable. If these rules are not put in place in the near future, the EU could lose its leading position in the world of robotics to countries in Asia, EU senior official Lucilla Sioli says. According to Professor Vanderborght, the development of the European robotics market is therefore a top economic priority.

BMW Director: ‘Make recharging electric cars as easy as recharging smartphones’

amber

The evolution of the electric car is a success according to Stephan Neugebauer, Director of Global Research Cooperation at the German car manufacturer BMW. In his opinion, subsidies from the European Union and the member states play a major role in this.

This is why there are so many different types and sizes of electric vehicles available nowadays. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when it comes to the market. Neugebauer’s general conclusions are that these cars are too expensive, do not have enough range and there are not enough charging stations. Which is why the EU should invest more money in a better charging infrastructure, as he advised senior officials of the European Commission last week.

‘No one buys a car without a charging station’

“No one will buy an electric car if you can’t charge it near your work or home. It’s as simple as that. That is why we must continue our partnership with the European Union [as in: EU-funded research, ed.]  Except that we no longer need to focus solely on the actual development of the car itself, as has been mainly the case in recent years. We should focus on cooperation with others, like energy companies and municipalities.”

As far as Neugebauer is concerned, the aim is to create a finely knit network of charging stations. This is only possible if municipalities make room for these in their spatial planning proposals. At the same time, he wants to see more charging stations where you are able to charge at a faster rate. This will require cooperation with energy companies.

Stephan Neugebauer (in the middle), BMW Foto: Lucette Mascini

‘The EU should pay for cooperation’

In the words of the BMW Director, it is about various stakeholder organizations, including the car industry itself.  Yet also, for example, about those companies who are providing digital services, all working together in order to get this new infrastructure up and running. This collaboration should be paid for out of the EU’s research budget which is part of the Horizon Europe program. This will amount to approximately 100 billion euros over the next few years.

The electric car can only conquer the market if it becomes just as easy to charge as a mobile phone, Neugebauer believes. “You just have to be able to drive somewhere and stick the plug into a socket so that you can charge a car. That’s my vision for the future.”

‘New fuels needed for hybrid cars’

There should also be charging stations for hybrid cars. “You should expect that various  types of electric cars are needed for different purposes. You can drive an electric car in town, whereas for longer distances you will need a hybrid that also uses a combustion engine. It is important that we develop an alternative fuel for these cars, so that we no longer need to use fossil fuels.”

Or else we will not be able to achieve the EU’s target of being almost totally carbon-neutral by 2050.

 

Nantes is the European Capital of Innovation!

This year, the European capital of innovation is Nantes. This has just been announced by European Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who has innovation in his portfolio. He mentioned qualities such as diversity, multiculturalism, sustainability and innovation as the qualities of this winning city.

Nantes is known for its innovative industry in numerous fields and as such attracts large industrial companies. In the media, the city is called a green oasis and an open-air museum for diverse cultures. In France, the city has made an impressive comeback as the ‘second city.’

1 million euros

The mayor of Nantes, Johanna Rolland, was delighted and accepted a cheque of 1 million euros which will be used for projects in her city. The other nominated cities were Bristol, Glasgow, Espoo, Rotterdam and Antwerp.

Mayor Johanna Rolland of the winning city of Nantes with the million euro cheque.

Previous cities that have won the award include Amsterdam, Paris and Athens.

This is the last time that Moedas will be awarding the prize. He talked about how he grew up in the countryside in Portugal and how the energy of the cities where he later moved had a major influence on him. “The way we live together in a city is very important for the way people are formed,” he said.

The other five cities received a cheque for 100,000 euros each.

The (deputy) mayors of the other nominated cities with their €100,000 cheques.

The future in 5 predictions according to European Innovation strategists

Well, why are predictions about the future important and why do we talk about them? That’s what experts in the field of innovation and related investment are wondering about during the European Innovation Days that will be held from 24 to 26 September in Brussels.

The reason why is that it is extremely important to define a mission and to understand what will matter, says Kerstin Cuhls, attached to the German Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation, and in the past also adviser on innovation to the European Commission.

No more mucking around

You can’t do anything and you can’t set a goal. But then, as a country or as the European Union, you are ‘durchwursteln’, as she calls it. In other words – mucking around. And you really shouldn’t want to do that. Here are the five most important predictions for the future between now and 2030 on which the EU should focus, according to the experts invited by the European Commission.

1. Recycling plastic will become serious business

According to the British consultant and scenario planner David Lye, plastic recovered from the oceans will become serious business because it will serve as a raw material for new products. He thinks that a technology will become available whereby enzymes digest plastic and convert it into new raw materials. These can be commercially exploited. Lye advised the European Commission in drafting the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 investment program. This will involve many millions of euros, so it wouldn’t hurt to pay attention to what he has to say.

2. Companies will all join the circular economy

In brief: the new standard in society will be that the economy will become completely circular, says Lidia Borrell. She is in her first week as Secretary-General of Science Europe, an organization which invests in exceptional scientific discoveries. By 2030, businesses will be using existing products and leaving no waste behind which they are unable to reuse. Companies that do not do this will probably fall by the wayside.

3. Climate damage will become part of a company’s risk profile

How that will work is made clear thanks to the prediction of investor Katarin Wagner from the HSBC investment bank. She expects that companies looking for funding will become more transparent about the way they manufacture their products. Plus they will be expected to clarify to what extent their production depends on methods that are detrimental or not to the climate. A method that is damaging poses a risk, as the market may reject it, which in turn makes its future prospects less solid. And in the end, that is less attractive for investors.

4. By 2030, the young people of today will all be short-sighted.

Expert on the future Kerstin Cuhls of the Fraunhofer Institute has a sobering message, as she herself describes it. Nobody had predicted that consumers would become addicted to streaming their social media. But that has happened. According to her, young people are ruining their eyes en masse, as their eyes are not suited to being focused on small screens for such long periods of time. Over the next ten years, they need to be taught that this is not a good thing. Technology needs to improve so that our eyes no longer get worse because of all of that staring at our screens. Otherwise we will all become short-sighted en masse by 2030.

5. Gene technology is becoming the basis of agriculture

According to the Lithuanian State Secretary for Education and Science, Valdemaras Razumas, all agricultural production in ten years’ time will be based on genetic engineering. He is currently discussing this with members of the European Parliament. According to him, this technology will be decisive for Europe’s future political course.

Read moreThe future in 5 predictions according to European Innovation strategists

Danish start-up ‘Walk with path’ wins European innovation prize

They were overjoyed, said Nuala Burke (29) and Lise Pape (37) from Denmark, that their invention won the € 1 million prize for social innovation from the European Commission. It will bring them closer to their goal of enabling people who have difficulty walking, (for example because of Parkinson’s disease), to be able to live a more mobile and independent life for a longer period of time.

Their company is called Walk with path and their product goes by the name of Pathfinder. This is a rubber strap that can be fitted to a shoe. On the tip of the shoe there is a light that shows you where to go. Easy, even essential, for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Pape told Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner of Research, Science and Innovation. “People with Parkinson’s disease suffer from the condition called freeze. They feel like they are glued to the spot and as a result are unable to walk any further.”

Freeze

One way to overcome the freeze is to place an obstacle in front of the foot, says Pape. “Then they just step over it and keep on walking.”

She figured this out when her own father, now 73 years old, got Parkinson’s as well. In order to help him, she put her foot in front of his so that he could step over it. She discovered that the focus of her father’s eye on an object in front of, or on his foot, led him to being able to carry on walking whenever he was plagued by a sudden bout of freeze.

Light

A tiny light that is attached to a rubber strap which can be placed on the tip of the shoe also provides that same kind of focus. Pape and Burke developed their product in collaboration with Bas Bloem, Professor of Neurology at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. The product is on the market since 2017.

€250,000

Two other start-ups that help older people stay mobile for longer received €250,000 each. One of them is the Swiss Myo Suit. The product’s inventor, Kai Schmidt, studied mechanical engineering. Yet after his grandmother got a new hip replacement and could only walk with a walker, he thought that there had to be a better way to allow her to walk. That’s why he started to focus on the development of this medical-technical product.

Plastic skeleton

He came up with a robotic suit that she can wear. It consists of a plastic skeleton that goes around the hips and legs and is powered by a battery that the user carries in a backpack. The skeleton is light, however, the battery isn’t, says Schmidt. It may be useful for people with all kinds of conditions if they want to boost their muscular strength.

Kai Schmidt in his plastic skeleton

Doctor as the deputy mayor

The third winner, who was also given €250,000 to invest in their company, was Mob4seniors from Toulouse, France. They created a digital map that makes it easy for the elderly to take part in local community activities. “Healthy and social,” according to the inventors. They were supported by their deputy mayor, who is not only a public administrator and politician, but also a doctor. That is what helped them, they said to the Commissioner.

Mobility City Campus Rotterdam wants to set up an ultra-fast ‘Hyperloop’ hovertrain

The initiator of the future Mobility City Campus Rotterdam, Avanto Ventures, wants to bring the Delft-based start-up Hardt to Rotterdam. Hardt is currently working on the development of an ultra-fast Hyperloop hovertrain. This new area for transport-related inventions will be located in the Merwevierhaven area, next to the three eye-catching towers on Marconiplein.

The municipality is examining the feasibility of this location. The land is partly owned by the municipality and partly by the Port of Rotterdam Authority. The aim is to start work in 2021.

Several innovative companies will invent, test and further develop new products in the field of mobility on the Mobility City Campus in Rotterdam. The Hardt Hyperloop could be one of these companies.

Flagship of the Netherlands

The Hardt Hyperloop is without a doubt the flagship of the Netherlands when it comes to innovative mobility in Europe. The aim is for the ultra-fast Hyperloop hovertrain to become an alternative for aircraft flying between European cities. They are just as fast, while there are no delays because the tube that makes them glide is not affected by weather conditions or other traffic. “So when they come to Rotterdam, it will be an enormous boost for us”, says Avanto’s initiator Antti Rantanen.

He has no idea when the decision will be made. “I hope they will make the decision this year. That would be an enormous boost for the campus and for the city. Not only because of the technology that the Hardt Hyperloop brings in. But also because of the companies which they attract and who contribute to the development of the Hyperloop.”

Competition

However, in Rantanen’s view, Mobility City Campus Rotterdam is not the only location which Hardt Hyperloop wants to commit itself to. “I noticed here and there that there are areas in the Netherlands where not much is happening and where there is a need for an economic impulse. But that is something for national politics. I’m not involved in any of that.”

Rantanen thinks that these types of environments low in productivity would not be convenient,  as the Hyperloop can in fact benefit from other start-ups within the accelerator environment that its Mobility City Campus in Rotterdam will have to become.

Hyperloop_one_article testing tubes Nevada
This is what the kilometres-long test tube that causes the Hyperloop to glide looks like.

Not so far

Mars Geuze , co-founder of Hardt Hyperloo, says that discussions are taking place with various authorities, including the municipality of Rotterdam, about the conditions for settling down in Rotterdam. “Rotterdam is an interesting option if the Mobility City Campus Rotterdam has a field lab as well as an experience center for the public. We would like to do it this way because, as a consumer, you will then be able to experience what it will be like to be in a Hyperloop cabin in the future. This is important because consumers will soon have to make use of it.”

Another condition is that the experience center should not be too far from the test site, where there is room for a straight, three-kilometer-long tube. The Hyperloop metro will glide through it. “It doesn’t have to be right next to it, but for that matter it shouldn’t be 200 kilometers away either. That’s not convenient. We have many dignitaries, such as transport ministers from all over the world, who come over to us to take a look at our technology. You then would not want to drive up and down between those two locations all the time. They don’t have time for that during a work visit.”

Political clout for the city

Before the summer holidays, European Commisioner for Transport Violeta Bulc  and Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen (VVD, Traffic) came to Delft to view part of the test tube and the latest technological breakthroughs. “Visits of this kind are incredibly important,” says Rantanen. “Also for the municipality of Rotterdam. You can then have a face-to-face discussion with politicians at the highest level about the development of the Hyperloop and exert some influence.”

Geuze states that over the past six months, Hardt Hyperloop has been holding discussions every two months with Bulc’s European officials about the development of regulations for hyperloops. The technology of the Delft start-up is the current standard. “The Netherlands really has the lead on this,” Geuze says.

Criminal gangs

Not only does the arrival of the Hardt Hyperloop in Rotterdam provide political clout, it will also give the city a more positive image, Rantanen believes. “People from all over the world have come to see what is happening here because of the Hyperloop. That is excellent city marketing. I’m Finnish, yet I’ve lived all over the world. I thought that Rotterdam was poor and criminal and that gangs were all over the place. Most foreigners think that. When this really is a great city.”

Eindhoven: ‘We are ahead in the field of urban greening’.

Stad Eindhoven skyline binnenstad centrum

Eindhoven is one of the three demonstration cities participating in the European climate research project that will be experimenting for five years with projects which make the city climate-adaptive using nature-based solutions. The aim is for other cities to be able to apply any successful results in their own municipalities. We asked Luuk Postmes, project leader from the municipality of Eindhoven, which of these projects are being implemented.

You are leading the project on behalf of the municipality of Eindhoven. What does your job involve precisely?

“As a civil servant working on urban water matters for the municipality of Eindhoven, I am both a project leader and an advisor. That covers the sewage system, the underground water and the surface water. As a result of the changing climate, we have to deal with drought, torrential rain and extreme heat stress. The question is: how do you deal with all of this? Greenery is a solution for many climate problems. Greenery can be used to cool the city. In turn, greenery is also dependent on water. Since this project is about climate adaptation, I have become the leader of this European project for the municipality of Eindhoven. The De Dommel WaterBoard and the province are also indirectly involved. But they are not a partners in the project. Eindhoven University of Technology is however.”

Project leader Luuk Postmes from the Eindhoven council

In what way is TU Eindhoven involved?

This is due to the participation of Lighthouse [a division of TU Eindhoven that specializes in sharing smart urban solutions, ed.],  which is led by Rianne Valkenburg and Elke den Ouden. They are responsible for drawing up roadmaps for the process that should make the city more climate-proof. They also work together with the Following Cities as part of the EU project and are developing a vision for the future in this area.

Why is Eindhoven a demonstration city and other cities are called ‘Following Cities’?

“We [the three demonstration cities of Eindhoven, Tampere and Genoa, ed.] had been working for some time on making the city climate more adaptive, among other things by making it greener. The Following Cities of the EU project – Stavanger, Cannes, Prague, Castellon, Başakşehir – are a bit further along in this trajectory. They are keeping an eye on things with us.”

Why is Eindhoven participating in this experiment?

“The subject resonates very well with what we are doing in Eindhoven. If such a European project is of interest to us, we will apply for it and make a proposal. Then it remains to be seen whether it will be selected.

Which projects is Eindhoven currently carrying out?

“Some projects have already been concluded. We are still working on others. We have arranged green spaces in several streets because these were completely paved. This is how we tackled the Wagenstraat and the Bilderdijkstraat. By using less pavement, less water is channeled into the sewerage system. For instance, we are working on greening the Vestdijk. This involves looking at different types of vegetation. We are working on the design of a greener Clausplein, which is currently completely paved over. The Victoria Park is already located at the back of a former Philips building nicknamed the Witte Dame on Clausplein. The Gender river will come through there the back of there as well. The area will have a park-like layout where residents will be able to enjoy the peace and quiet and the greenery around them. We are also experimenting with greenery that can be mowed and which has a positive effect on biodiversity. Another method for increasing biodiversity is to mow the grass only once a year. This way you get tall grass that attracts insects and the subsoil is better able to absorb water. What you see is that if you mow less often, there will also be more and more different types of flowers and shrubs. You can see this happening on Parklaan, for example.”

But is that innovative?

“This is something that we, as a city, are pioneering. Other cities are following us. You can see in some foreign cities that they are often paved over an incredible amount. Everything is sealed with stones, concrete or asphalt. You can even see that when there is a tree on the pavement, the ground around it is completely covered in asphalt all the way up to the trunk. In Eindhoven we are looking for the best ways to make the city greener. What kind of plants should you choose? Should you choose plants that are better able to withstand drought? Or should we water plants when there is a prolonged drought? Are there any possible changes that can be made in their management that will help them cope with climate change and which will increase biodiversity? We try to answer these kinds of questions. We are also investigating how we could create more green space in places where there is limited space. One example is Eindhoven city center. It will be redeveloped in the next few years with more green space. We are trying in particular to encourage private-sector initiatives.”

What problems will these projects resolve?

“Initially, the disruption caused by heavy rain will be reduced. We will automatically be able to improve biodiversity by opting for a greener approach. That’ s a bonus for this project.”

How much money is the EU investing in it?

“The total budget is more than 10 million euros. Each of the three demonstration cities will receive approximately 1.7 million euros. The rest of the money will go to the other partners, including the Following Cities.”

The EU wants the results of the projects to be quantifiable. How are you going to measure them?

” It is still a struggle to figure it all out. But some results are fairly easy to measure. You are able to count how many species of bees and butterflies that have been added to a project site. Along with what the distance is between residents and green spaces and how many cool, green spaces have been added to the city. I have made a proposal to measure the heat stress sensitivity in the city using satellite images. In order to measure the effect on water management, we measure the soil infiltration capacity of areas with long grass. We compare the rates with those of areas where the grass is shorter. It turns out that the lawnmower compresses the subsoil. Consequently, water seeps into the ground less quickly if the grass is short, making it more difficult for it to soak into the soil.”

When will the project be finished?

“We have about three years for the implementation of the projects and two years for the monitoring. However, we won’t be able to achieve that for all of these projects. The main reason for this is that they conflict with the planning of other projects and processes. You can’t overhaul the entire city center all at once. The process may therefore take longer as a result.”

What are they doing in Tampere and Genua?

“In Tampere, Finland, they are focusing on two housing projects, one of which is on a former industrial estate. The most important focus point here is maintaining the water quality of the surrounding lakes. They have to take the shorter days and the lower temperatures in winter into account more. One experiment concerned the purification of water through the use of algae. The question was whether this would also work at those extremely low temperatures during winter. Which is what did transpire. The experiment was a success. In addition, they are also conducting experiments involving the construction of green roofs. In Genoa, Italy, they are converting an old barracks site into a park-like environment where you will be able to stay and enjoy leisure activities. In particular, they are looking at the use of greenery as a means of regulating water management.”

Start-up of the day: Print your own steel bridge

MX3D uses a modified welding robot to print large metal objects, such as a pedestrian bridge which is to span one of the canals in Amsterdam as soon as the final tests have been completed. Founder Gijs van der Velden explains how and why the idea came about.

How exactly does the MX3D method work?

“Our goal was to create a 3D printer that would be able to print large metal objects at a low cost, for idealistic reasons. We started with a standard robot and welding machine. And we wrote software for that so that we could turn the welding robot into a 3D printer. As a result, we were able to print large objects in metal. Instead of welding two plates together, our robot welds welding to welding. This ultimately results in a model that the designer has made on their computer which they want to have printed out. This is entirely made up of welding cables, each half a millimeter thick. It is kind of like rethinking something that already exists and that you will use in a novel way. When you build up the material welding wire by welding wire, as our welding robot does, it does involve a lot of research. Because no one has ever done it like this before. In some places, the metal surfaces are really nice and smooth. But there were imperfections on some of them. We had to find out all these things in order to make it a reliable printer. Research into materials will never stop. But the basis is there. The fact that we can make a decent end product has now been proven. Our first product, a metal pedestrian bridge that spans a canal in Amsterdam, still needs to be tested a number of times for its load-bearing capacity. It has already been proven during the Dutch Design Week in 2018 that it can carry up to 10,000 kilos. Ultimately, it should be able to carry up to 17,000 kilos. This is the standard load-bearing capacity of such a bridge, including an extra margin on account of the new technology.”

What was the driving force behind developing this new system?

“We were frustrated that 3D printers were not being made available for the production of large metal objects. As everyone was focusing on small objects and micro precision. Then we ourselves started looking for a method. We bought an industrial robot and connected it to a welding machine. As inventors, designers and artists, we were especially curious about the possibilities that this might offer us. For us, it was about the fact that what designers had designed on their computers could actually be done with a large metal printer. Without such a printer, the process was sometimes very expensive or it took a very long time. We use our software to make the manufacturing process digital. In the upper right corner of your screen, you can immediately see that my design will take 3 hours to print. You are also able to see when you can do it and how much it will cost. Designers and inventors are offered a freedom when it comes to metal design that they previously did not have. We started from the design angle out of curiosity. But with the tools that we have created, we’re slowly moving into the industrial arena. Since it has been proven that our system is suitable for making artwork and even a bridge, there is a demand for the production of industrial components. And so we are evolving towards a machine that is suitable for the metal industry.”

What has been the greatest challenge for MX3D so far?

“When we started working on our bridge project, we set out a clear vision for the future. We wanted robots to be able to build a whole bridge without any human intervention. The robots must be able to work independently on a bridge [see the video below for a demonstration of this, ed.]. However, in practice this turned out not to be feasible for the very first bridge. But that is definitely the direction MX3D wants to go in. Although we proved then that we could print on the bridge using robots, we split the production into parts that were later welded together for the sake of efficiency. This had to be done because the engineering skills and software weren’t yet able to make the complex design of that first bridge in just one go. We had to radically adapt the bridge design to the capabilities. We didn’t immediately throw everything overboard, but tried to make the bridge so that you could see that it was made in a way that is not yet known to the world. It had to be the banner for large scale metal printing.”

Which moment gave the greatest satisfaction?

“That was when our bridge was installed at the Dutch Design Week of 2018. That it was actually finished and people could walk on it made me very proud. The visitors thought our bridge was the most beautiful project of the fair. That is why we received the 2018 public’s prize. Another time was when we received the award for the best doctor and technology project of 2018. The European Commission offers it to very promising starters. We then went to the Ars Electronica festival [a center for electronic art, ed.] in Austria with the whole team to receive the €20,000 prize.”

What can we expect from MX3D in the future?

“We are busy with a new kind of bridge project that will be unveiled in September. We hope in this way to maintain the high profile that our first bridge gave us. In the future we hope to see the possibilities that MX3D has created on computer screens in schools and in companies that are using our software. We wanted to give designers a tool for redefining the shape of metal. Soon we will see more and more of this design language around the world because people will be using our tool.

MX3D is one of the twenty start-ups that the pan-European network RobotUnion nominated in July for a prize of up to 223,000 euros. The next round of this European start-up competition is in October.

 

Eindhoven, Tampere and Genova – demonstration cities in European climate study

The Brabant city of Eindhoven, the Italian city of Genova and the Finnish city of Tampere have been appointed as demonstration cities for experiments on a major livability study to be carried out by UNaLab, the European Commission’s climate laboratory. This is evident from a report published this week on the European Commission’s website. The laboratory measures the results of all kinds of natural methods aimed at making cities resistant to excessive rainfall, extreme heat and drought during the summer as well as air pollution caused by industrial and motorized traffic emissions. The initial results will be presented as early as next year.

The solutions that the three cities are experimenting with are all based on natural, biological processes – such as the purification of air through cultivating plants on rooftops and walls, and planting different kinds of flowers and trees in the city. This should benefit biodiversity and the quality of life in the city. Other applications within the European Commission’s research are air purification via the installation of rain gardens in car parks and vertical gardens on buildings which are designed to absorb extreme rainfall.

Experiments with plants

UNaLab is currently rolling out a series of experiments in Eindhoven, Genova and Tampere which will be paid for by Horizon 2020, the EU’s current investment fund for innovation. “We hope this will prove that it is possible to improve the climate in cities by harnessing nature,” says Dr. Laura Wendling, who is the director of the Finnish laboratory involved in European research. Wendling is also coordinating UNaLab’s research program. One of the solutions that the cooperating cities have come up with is the construction of a bicycle path through green areas in the city. As a result, cyclists breathe in cleaner air than they do if they were to ride on the busiest arterial roads. Another experiment involves placing algae in ponds and waterways in cities. These are designed to naturally purify the water of waste materials such as nitrates.

The project organization of the European urban climate research will monitor the impact of the various experiments by measuring how far the temperature in the city drops, how much cleaner the water and the air become, and how many floods and water shortages have been prevented. This is done by placing sensors at certain locations that are to record this information.

Pressure on urban climate is rising

The need to improve the quality of life in cities will only increase in the coming years, according to research leader Wendling. At present, 70% of the European population are living in a city. By 2050, that figure will rise to 80 percent. This means that the pressure on space in cities will increase dramatically. In the view of the Finnish scientist, this means that there is an urgent need for reliable information on which basis nature should be able to take over great locations in the city instead of being driven out of it. And on top of that, this nature shouldn’t cost too much either. Because the idea is that those consumers who use it, should be able to afford it.

UNaLab will present its preliminary research results over the course of 2020. Then all other cities in Europe will be able to make use of them by applying the tried and tested methods within their own municipalities. Cities outside Europe have already shown interest, such as the densely populated Chengdu in China, Quy Nhon in Vietnam and Medellin in Colombia, as UNaLab reports.

 

Quantum computers: Forschungszentrum Jülich and Google announce research partnership

Today Forschungszentrum Jülich as well as Google announced that they will cooperate on research into quantum computers. Furthermore, in addition to joint research activities, the two new research partners plan to advance the training of experts in quantum technologies and quantum algorithms. Another goal of this German-American collaboration is the mutual exchange of hardware.

During his visit to Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, Peter Altmaier, Federal Minister of Economics and Energy, welcomed the cooperation with these words:

Quantum computers have the potential to solve certain types of calculations much more efficiently than today’s technologies can. Quantum computers and quantum algorithms are therefore very important technologies which will shape the future and are being followed closely around the world. At present, quantum computers are still very much at in their infancy, and it is difficult to predict what will become possible – and what perhaps will not. Researchers still have a lot of basic research to do in this area. It was the same situation when we were developing today’s computers. I am therefore delighted that Google and Forschungszentrum Jülich have decided to cooperate in the important forward-looking field of quantum computers”

EU flagship quantum program

Google and Forschungszentrum Jülich have been working independently on the development of quantum processors and quantum algorithms for years. The research center plans to operate a European quantum computer equipped with 50 to 100 superconductive qubits, including quantum bits. In quantum informatics, they are regarded as the counterpart to the standard bit. The quantum computer is to be developed as part of the EU’s Quantum Flagship program  and will be accessible to research and industry at Forschungszentrum Jülich. This EU-wide research initiative aims to accelerate the development of quantum technologies in Europe. It has a funding budget of 1 billion euros for a period of about ten years.

Quantum computers offer options to solve certain algorithmic problems in seconds which would take years with established supercomputers. Google, a company that sets new standards in this field, is an important partner for us to join forces in research to advance this revolutionary technology.”

Explains Prof. Wolfgang Marquardt, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Dr. Hartmut Neven, Technical Director at Google and Head of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab explains further:

“Quantum processors may support the development of new environmentally friendly technologies and revolutionize artificial intelligence technologies. We are excited to see the European developments and, as part of the cooperation with the Forschungszentrum Jülich, we look forward to contributing to the success of European quantum technologies.“

On-the-job training for young scientists

Forschungszentrum Jülich and the American group will support each other in the future, particularly in training junior scientists and experts. Because, according to Dr. Markus Hoffmann, head of “Quantum Partnerships” at Google:

“A shortage of specialists, like in the field of artificial intelligence, is also foreseeable in the field of quantum computing. For this reason, we invest in training and promoting top academic talent.”

The partnership is primarily about regular scientific exchange as well. Prof. Kristel Michielsen, head of the Quantum Information Processing workgroup at the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC), already has very concrete plans in this respect::

“Hands-on workshop and spring schools will be organised at Forschungszentrum Jülich. The Jülich UNified Infrastructure for Quantum computing (JUNIQ), a European quantum computer user facility planned for the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC), will be available for training industry professionals, and will be accessible in the cloud to European users,”

Long-standing collaboration

Additionally, Google and Forschungszentrum Jülich will carry out joint research in the field of quantum hardware and quantum algorithms. This gives scientists from both parties the opportunity to conduct simulations on the supercomputers at the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC) and to experiment with Google’s quantum processors. Forschungszentrum Jülich and Google are already working together on several research projects. In the meantime, some of them have been awarded the Google Faculty Research Award. For example, Prof. Kristel Michielsen and Prof. Tommaso Calarco from Forschungszentrum Jülich were awarded the 2018 Research Prize. Another award went to Prof. Frank Wilhelm-Mauch from the University of Saarland in 2015. Forschungszentrum Jülich has been involved with this project in the OpenSuperQ sub-project of the European Quantum Flagship program.