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.

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

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.

Emission-free shipping as of 2050: the question is how?

Ships in European waters and inland rivers are required to be emission-free by 2050. They need a radical makeover in order to accomplish this goal. Fuel oil and diesel? If all goes well, we will no longer hear or smell them when that time comes around. But just how shipbuilders and owners want to do that is a question that remained largely unanswered during a session at the European Innovation Days. This was where experts from the European shipping industry were supposed to advise European Commission officials.

Sensors make ships more autonomous

The idea was that recommendations would come out of it for the Horizon Europe investment program. Climate targets play an important role in this. However, as an example, R&D director Paolo Guglia of the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri (mega yachts, cruise ships and military vessels) elaborated mainly on the increase in the number of sensors on ships which aim to make them more autonomous. The helmsman has more data at his disposal than is currently available because of this. Which enables him to make better decisions. Consequently, he is less dependent on data sent from ashore – a factor that should contribute to safety. Not unimportant for a sector wherein accidents sometimes lead to negative publicity.

Good news therefore for the shipping industry. But for now that has little to do with greener ships, or so it seems. It is expected that the use of artificial intelligence and digitization of shipping will result in ships that are environmentally friendly, said Sinikka Hartonen, chairperson of the Shipowners’ Association in Finland. That means that a ship will be able to sail in a way which causes as little environmental damage as possible.

Which green technology will win out?

According to R&D manager Henk Prins of the MARIN research institute in Wageningen, it should be possible to operate emission-free inland waterway and coastal shipping as early as 2030. It was not entirely clear how. The problem is that it is not yet possible to predict which green technology will dominate the ships of the future. Hydrogen? Collecting the CO2 on board and transferring it to port? Any other ideas? I haven’t a clue. That is a problem for the shipping industry, as ships have a life span of around 30 years. Thus the question is if an investor intends to make a purchase at some point, what should they buy in order to remain competitive in the long term.

One way to avoid having to write off polluting ships prematurely is to ‘retro-fit’ them, as this is now called. New, green ships are on their way, of course. Yet existing ships can be refurbished with new, green technology. This will enable them to sail emission-free in due course.

Trouble ahead

A caveat to the innovation drive shown by the various shipping experts towards the Brussels officials came from Faig Abbasov, responsible for the shipping portfolio of the Transport & Environment NGO. He said that there is a problem around long-distance shipping if the EU makes rules that do not apply on an international level. Because there are countries that are able to just sail across the oceans on dirty fuels, which is presumably a lot cheaper. They will then be able to outdo their clean rivals in waters outside of Europe. The solution must come from the IMO, the UN body that makes the rules for international shipping. But there, too, Abassov sees trouble ahead. After all, what if a country in the UN does not adhere to the Paris Agreement targets for instance? Then the UN body will likely be a lame duck and shall consequently not succeed in implementing the stricter environmental rules for shipping throughout the world.

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

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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.

 

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

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who is fighting against climate change, is triggering mixed reactions among the general public. However, this is certainly not the case when it comes to the top of the European aviation industry and the European Commission, who are currently trying to shape research and environmental policy for the coming years.

During the Research & Innovation Days held in Brussels this past week and organized by the European Commission, Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer of the European aircraft manufacturer Airbusm, began her contribution with a description of the brave young Greta, who sailed to the United States in order to make it clear to the world that she means business as far as a cleaner environment is concerned.

Radical inventions are needed

The world must do away with greenhouse gas emissions and invent a radically new technology for aircraft propulsion in line with the European Commission’s target for 2050, Vittadini argued during the session. All Airbus suppliers, such as engine manufacturers, will need to be involved.

The statements made by the CTO of the second largest aircraft manufacturer in the world serve as input for the new version of the European Commission’s ‘Horizon Europe‘ research program. The European Commission will reserve about €100 billion in total for all research in these areas.

Vittadini said that the most important goal for the aviation sector between now and 2050 is to produce aircraft that no longer emit CO2. Otherwise she believes it will no longer be possible to keep aviation accessible to the growing numbers of passengers it attracts nowadays. There are currently 130,000 flights a day for millions of passengers worldwide. As a consequence, the democratization of aviation may falter, she concludes. “Even though that is precisely what has been achieved in the past century.”

CO2-free aircraft by 2030

The only problem is that the technology for clean flight is not yet available. With Airbus, she hopes that she will be able to deliver a zero-emission hybrid electric airplane with room for 100 passengers for air travel on a regional level by 2030. However, at the moment there does not seem to be such a solution for long haul flights.

The problem is that in the meantime, air traffic is increasing exponentially, as Professor Henri Werij at Delft University of Technology emphasized during the input session. As a result, the benefit of a more efficient use of energy (which also saves on CO2 emissions) of 4.5 per cent per year has already been cancelled out after just two years, he explained. Because if there are more passengers, more planes will fly in and out, and together they will emit more CO2. That’s not making any progress.

Time is of the essence. “We have to move forward,” he said, and received support from Vittadini as well as from the other European aviation industrialists that took part in the discussion.

‘EU money needed for new technology’

“All disciplines must work together. The chemical sector, the car industry. They all have to deal with the fact that they have to replace fossil fuels with clean energy.”

That’s why Werij is advocating that the European Commission invests money in research programs that transcend member states and disciplines. “I understand that this can be difficult. But a bit of support from the European Commission could help here.”