Do we need to innovate in innovation?

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Barcelona is among the ten European capitals that are considered technology hubs. Furthermore, it was named European Capital of Innovation in 2014 and the “smartest city” in the world in 2015.

Catalonia has managed to attract a considerable amount of private investment in recent years, specifically, 56% of all foreign investment in Spain in 2015. It is the European region with the greatest capacity for foreign investment in corporate innovation and development, with over 1.07 billion euros invested between 2010 and 2015. Spending on innovation increased to 3.1 billion euros in 2014.

We have technology centres, such as the CIT UPC, which bring together multidisciplinary research groups with extensive knowledge and experience of collaborative projects, and are of great value to companies in Catalonia. Universities such as the UPC are at the forefront of knowledge and an endless source of new technology-based companies, with over 30 spin-offs in operation and over 100 created to date.

All of this says a lot about the world in which we live and about our capacity to innovate, that is, to create new concepts and technologies to meet existing and new requirements, and to help to distinguish products when they enter existing markets or to open new markets. It also explains our ability to put these new concepts into practice by creating spin-offs or transferring them to existing companies, as well as the capacity to attract highly skilled technologists and create spaces that enable us to maintain a prominent position in the world, through major trade fairs such as the Mobile World Congress (MWC) or the Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC).

However, I would like to reflect on some important questions: Is everything complete? Could more be achieved at the level of public-private partnerships (PPP) to ensure that the ecosystem continues to grow in quantity and above all in quality? In short, do we need to innovate in innovation?

Believe in Catalan universities and technology centres. The Catalan corporate world needs to trust even further in Catalan university research groups and technology centres. They provide leading knowledge at global scale and original, innovative ideas, so that companies that use their services can create cutting-edge products. Just by investing in our environment, we can make it grow and replenish itself.

Believe in university spin-offs, which are normally created as a result of patents that could have a notable impact on industry. The growth of spin-offs often depends on other companies and government bodies trusting in their proposals in the period after their creation. It is a risk, but it must be assumed as this is the only way to form an ecosystem that believes in itself and grows in a sustainable way.

Increase public investment in innovation and technology transfer. The Catalan ecosystem has programmes aimed at launching research groups’ ideas on the market. Examples are the Semilla and Producto programmes organised by the Government of Catalonia’s Directorate-General for Research, which invested 2.8 million euros in the last call. It is important to continue in this direction, investing in launching ideas on the market and increasing the investment, so that the Catalan entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to grow and form part of our culture.

Catalan investment funds should drive the ecosystem: it is essential to assume the risk of investing in technology. To date, little commitment has been made and only if the investment is sure to obtain profits almost immediately. Some ecosystems, such as that of ICT, are medium-term investments of 3–6 years, where “giving birth” to the idea, putting it into practice through initial clients and ensuring that the pilot product becomes a product on the market takes time and patience. Investment funds must see the ecosystem as an opportunity in the medium- to long-term where what is sown today will be reaped in the next 5–10 years.

The creation of Catalan Public-Private Partnership would provide opportunities for ideas that emerge from the universities. Direct investment in universities is required, not only financially, but also in infrastructure and staff with experience in the creation and development of technology-based companies, locally and internationally. These ecosystems should become benchmarks, mirrors in which students can see every day what is emerging from the university, and get used to coexisting, carrying out placements and learning what it means to grow as entrepreneurs. The big companies and government bodies need to come together to promote and create strategies that enable the creation of companies. This is the only way that we can create international leaders in the next ten years.

Dr Josep Lluís Larriba-Pey director of DAMA UPC

Artcicle released at El Periódico on 28 February 2017

Short biography

Josep Lluís Larriba-Pey is a lecturer at the Barcelona School of Informatics (FIB), which is associated with the Department of Computer Architecture at the Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña (UPC). He founded the DAMA-UPC research group and the technology-based company Sparsity Technologies (www.sparsity-technologies.com). Sparsity has products based on knowledge created jointly with the DAMA-UPC research group in different areas, including CIGO! that is focused on logistics and smart mobility management for the city and for companies (www.smart-cigo.com).

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