ith a successful track record and a widely recognised brand name, and with well-developed plans for further strengthening its professional and technical capacity between now and 2004, the IRC network is fast becoming indispensable as part of the emerging European 'research and innovation area'. But it must start to take control of its own destiny, if it is to achieve long-term sustainability. This was the message presented to the network's annual meeting in Florence last October by Giulio Grata, Director of Enterprise DG's Innovation Directorate, and by Javier Hernández-Ros, head of the Networks and Services unit responsible for IRC co-ordination.
The IRC Network In Brief
The IRC Network in Brief The Innovation and SMEs Programme's network of 68 Innovation Relay Centres (IRCs) spans 30 countries, including the EU Member States and the newly associated countries (NAC).
Each IRC is its region's window on European innovation, helping companies and research organisations transfer technologies to and from the rest of Europe. Further information about the IRC network is available on the IRC homepage (/irc/home.html).
Against the background of Community enlargement, the Lisbon summit gave innovation a new impetus as the vehicle for securing European leadership of the global knowledge-based economy by the end of the decade, Mr Grata told IRC managers and staff. Europe's institutions would evolve accordingly.
"The Commission will become less involved in direct action," he said. "Increasingly, it will focus instead on the design of policy instruments, leaving implementation to those best qualified to carry it out. This implies no threat to the IRC network. The European Research Area will establish a framework for the co-ordination of Member State research programmes, creating new opportunities for transnational research outside the Sixth EU Research Framework Programme. The IRCs' role in FP6 will be crucial - not only their support for transnational technology transfer but their creation of a European profession at the heart of Europe's innovation infrastructure."
Professor Bernhard Sabel, founder of Nova Vision Ltd, with the IRC Innovation Award presented by the European Commission's Javier Hernández-Ros for his computer-based system to restore vision in patients with visual impairments. Nova Vision is supported by IRC South Germany, SEZ.
In the longer term, Mr Grata looked forward to the time when the IRCs would become so useful to their client enterprises, to their regions and to their Member States that they could sustain themselves on a commercial basis. However, the Commission had no intention of abandoning them, he promised, although it would be encouraging the network to prepare itself for a self-sufficient and autonomous future.
According to another speaker, Aleardo Furlani of the IRC-IRE CU, the network now covers a wider geographical area than any other technology transfer network in the world. Its success, based on effective networking tools and procedures, brand recognition and close links with enterprises and universities, is also unique.
Reviewing the network's achievements at the start of its next phase, Javier Hernández-Ros said that it had now achieved cruising speed. He reminded delegates that it links 68 members, spread across Europe in 30 countries. It had been strengthened by the recent addition of a number of well-qualified new contractors within the European Union, and by the full membership of the IRCs in the accession countries. The Commission had given the IRC Central Unit (IRC-IRE CU) an enhanced role in order to support further improvements in the network's professionalism and performance. And new opportunities were opening up, both for links with European innovation support specialists such as the IPR-Helpdesk and LIFT(1), and for the extension of the IRC technology transfer service to transnational organisations such as Eureka and the European Space Agency.
Over to you
"The co-ordination and rationalisation of different European enterprise support networks is now high on the political agenda," Hernández-Ros reported. "Closer co-operation between IRCs, Euro Info Centres (EICs), Business and Innovation Centres (BICs), and National Contact Points (NCPs) is essential. This is an opportunity for IRCs as transnational technology transfer specialists to become key players in a more coherent European enterprise support system."
For individual IRCs, integration in regional innovation systems presents similar challenges and opportunities. "As springboards for the internationalisation of local firms, you must make yourselves part of the core business of regional innovation policy," Hernández-Ros encouraged them. "Already, a number of IRCs are securing recognition and financial support at regional level as projects of their regions' innovation strategies(2)."
The recently launched IRC study(3) would examine a range of options for the development and future organisation of the network, he continued, and he welcomed the lively debate which followed his invitation to contribute to the study. "It is time for you to take the initiative," he said. "The Commission established the IRCs and has supported them so far. But it is your network, and its future will increasingly depend on your creativity."
IRCs and Innovation Cells
During the annual meeting, parallel sessions focused on specific topics of practical relevance to the IRCs' day-to-day work, or its future development. One which attracted keen interest examined possible mechanisms for co-operation between the IRC network and the 'innovation cells' of the Fifth Research Framework Programme's thematic programmes.
Every FP5 research project must produce a technology implementation plan (TIP). The innovation cells are responsible for monitoring these plans, and for supporting transfer of technologies with potential for exploitation. However, as speakers from three of the thematic programmes made clear, few resources are available to deliver this support, while the necessary tools and procedures are still being developed.
The IRC network offers an obvious channel for the proactive dissemination of exploitable results, while the TIPs are a promising source of high-quality technology offers for the IRCs and their clients. As Karl-Heinz Robrock of the Directorate-General for Information Society put it, "That is why I am here", and he discussed the possibility of collaboration with the IRC Information and Communications Technologies thematic group.
Magda de Carli of the IRC-IRE Central Unit announced a forthcoming pilot action. Information from selected TIPs will be sent to the project's closest IRC, which will visit the company concerned, and disseminate its technology offer to the network's members. The potential of this collaboration seems substantial. "We hope that in the IRC network we have found the ideal partner to support exploitation of research results with real technology transfer potential," said Stefan Vandendriessche of the Commission's Competitive and Sustainable Growth programme.
(1) Online at http://www.ipr-helpdesk.org/ and http://www.lift.lu/ respectively.
(2) See'Innovation Communities'.
(3) See 'IRC Strategic Review', edition 2/00.