Academics, innovators, and industry: innovative changes taking hold but more must be done

Higher education institution (HEI) experts gathered at a recent EIT Raw Materials-led event to assess the rate of innovation across European HEIs. They agreed that the institutional change and innovations needed to achieve the goals of the European Green Deal are starting to take hold in HEIs. However, they said more needs to be done.

Experts said an approach whereby HEIs are working closely with business, to align university courses with changing industry needs for the achievement of 2050 climate-neutrality goals, has been very successful. This approach is just one aspect of the EIT Higher Education Institution Initiative (EIT HEI Initiative), which is led by EIT RawMaterials. The EIT HEI Initiative supports HEIs with expertise and coaching, access to the EIT innovation ecosystem, and funding. It thus empowers HEIs to become regional engines of innovation and foster sustainable growth and jobs across Europe.

However, the clear message was that HEIs must now gain momentum in transforming their innovation models to support the industrial and societal changes needed to achieve the green and digital transition. The discussions took place at the EIT INNOVEIT: Innovation in Higher Education event in Stockholm on 15 September.

Opening the event, EIT RawMaterials CEO, Bernd Schäfer, addressed HEIs across Europe. He said disruptive innovation is a necessity for producing the most relevant skills and knowledge needed to transition Europe to carbon-neutrality.

There is no way to achieve the goals of the European Green Deal unless we have a sustainable and secure supply of the raw materials, and a skilled workforce, to build the necessary batteries and electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels, and to ensure mining is environmentally-sound.  Innovations begin with our higher education institutions pushing forward with transforming their existing innovation model without delay.

Bernd Schäfer, CEO EIT RawMaterials

Mr Schäfer assured HEIs of the commitment of the EIT HEI Initiative to help drive this innovation forward.

The more higher education institutions that we can help transform into engines of innovation, the more a climate-neutral continent begins to become a reality.

Bernd Schäfer, CEO EIT RawMaterials

Collaborating on Pan-European Innovation

Merel Leppens, the European Commission’s Policy Officer for Innovation and EIT, echoed Mr Schäfer’s address noting that HEIs are ‘indispensable’ to achieving the European Green Deal. She said the European Commission would take inspiration from the EIT HEI Initiative, as it works to achieve the goals of the Green Deal and the European Innovation Agenda.

We will build on the experience of EIT in incorporating education into their knowledge triangle. It is here that the importance of the HEI EIT Initiative lies, in its central action of building entrepreneurship and innovation capacity.

Merel Leppens, European Commission Policy Officer for Innovation and EIT

In her speech, Maria Koleva, Deputy Head of Cabinet of EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, spoke of the synergies between the European Innovation Agenda and the EIT HEI Initiative in nurturing deep innovation across Europe.


A new PhD model to boost European Innovation

The keynote speaker was Dr Riam Kanso, a leading science innovator, and the founder and CEO of Conception X. The independent non-profit is the UK’s leading deep tech venture programme, currently working with 30 universities. Dr Kanso posed a question to European HEIs. She asked them to examine whether they could use PhD time and resources in a more innovative way that could lead to the building of a product or service to help solve major societal challenges.

We need to take things outside the system and see what people can do when you give them freedom and an environment to use their brains in a more divergent way that a traditional PhD might allow.

Dr Riam Kanso, Founder and CEO of Conception X

Speaking ahead of her keynote address, Dr Kanso had also urged European HEIs to revolutionise their innovation activities to effectively tackle climate change. You can read more about her call on HEIs in this news article.

Fostering a Mindset Change on European Innovation

Two panel discussions featured a diverse group of distinguished speakers representing universities and companies across 12 different countries, and associated with projects funded by the EIT HEI Initiative. Panelists spoke about best practices their universities have adopted, such as incubation programmes for nurturing entrepreneurial capacities by connecting students directly with industry.

Dr Kare Moberg, Senior Researcher at The Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship – Young Enterprise, spoke about this innovative approach taken by the Start for Future Alliance:

Working to bridge the gap between the worlds of academia and business is quite difficult, but there are also a lot of synergies. It is important to have a role for everyone, and one of the things we offer is an open incubation programme. We match students with business advisers and experts on areas ranging from urban mobility to manufacturing. We have focused on systemic thinking and sustainability, which is something they can implement in their programmes and initiatives, but also how they can collaborate with external stakeholders.

Dr Kare Moberg, Senior Researcher at The Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship – Young Enterprise

Discussions also focused on fostering institutional change at HEIs to boost innovation. Speakers shared their experiences of this, and of how their own mindsets have changed due to their involvement in the innovation projects.

Dr Tamer Abu-Alam is the Project Coordinator of CloudEARTHi, the EIT RawMaterials-represented project on the panel. He spoke about the new approach they are piloting with creating education courses in line with industry needs:

If you asked me two years ago who my customer was, I would have said it was students, but they are not the customer. It is the business sector, the NGO, the government sector – who will hire our students. They are our customer. So first we invite stakeholders from business, government, and NGOs and they define the objectives and the needs. Then the academics build the education programme. This makes students effective from the first day they join the workplace.

Dr Tamer Abu-Alam, Project Coordinator CloudEARTHi


EIT HEI Initiative – A Glance into the Future

The EIT HEI Initiative is currently funding 49 projects, each worth €1.2 million, and will continue to add new projects to its portfolio. The aim is to reach 550 HEIs by 2027 to boost European innovation in higher education, and support the transition towards a more sustainable, digital, and competitive Europe.

The next round of EIT HEI funding (the third since the initiative began in 2021) will be launched in the coming months to further expand the number  of innovation projects in European universities. The future direction of the EIT HEI Initiative funding is due to focus on deep tech innovations and talents, and increasing the EIT-Labelled education programmes across more universities for enhanced innovation capacity building.

EIT Commitment to Driving Innovation

Bringing INNOVEIT Stockholm to a close, Jānis Grēviņš, EIT Governing Board member, reiterated the assurances that the EIT HEI Initiative will consistently support HEIs in intensifying their innovation capacities.

You can be assured that the EIT is here and dedicated to driving forward the European Innovation Agenda and working with our HEI partners to achieve this…including our partners in Ukraine.

Jānis Grēviņš, EIT Governing Board

INNOVEIT Stockholm was the opening event of INNOVEIT WEEKS, a series of events showcasing how EIT, Europe’s largest innovation ecosystem, offers unique opportunities to innovators and entrepreneurs, powering solutions to global challenges.