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Unlocking the research and innovation potential of Wallonia

Wallonia, the southern, French-speaking region of Belgium, has released figures on its participation in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), which suggest that the region's research and innovation players are performing well in the European research arena. Out of 1,236 proj...

Wallonia, the southern, French-speaking region of Belgium, has released figures on its participation in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), which suggest that the region's research and innovation players are performing well in the European research arena. Out of 1,236 projects proposals in which Walloon participants took part, a total of 324 projects were selected for funding under FP6. This represents a research funding injection to the region of €69 million. Of the projects retained, 39 were coordinated by an organisation from the region, while certain Walloon actors participated in more than one project. Proposals involving Wallonia also had a 25% success rate - slightly higher than the EU average. Overall, Walloon participation increased in FP6, accounting for 26% of Belgian's participation compared to approximately 18% in previous framework programmes. According to the National Contact Point (NCP) of Wallonia, the success rate is in keeping with the region's economic performance, which, after many years of stagnation, is beginning to take off thanks to the Walloon Government's ¿1 billion 'Marshall Plan'. Part of the 2005 action plan is a €280 million envelope over the next four years for the development of 'competitiveness clusters' in the economic sectors that are specific to Wallonia and which are growing. These are pharmacy and health; agriculture and food; mechanical engineering; transport and logistics; and aeronautics and aerospace. Each pole brings together companies (large and small), training centres and research units, both public and private, to work on projects with an industrial application. A total of €120 million from the four-year envelope is set aside for research projects. This is in addition to the region's annual budget for R&D, which amounts to €150 million. 'The recent dynamic created by the competitiveness clusters corresponds to our region's strengths in the Sixth Framework Programme,' Stéphane Waha, coordinator of the National Contact Point (NCP) of Wallonia, told CORDIS News. Some 70% of all Walloon FP6 participants were active in projects in areas of research covered by the 'competitiveness poles'. But bringing the knowledge and excellence of the Walloon research community into the European research arena did not happen by itself, or overnight. In 2002, the Walloon Business Federation approached the Regional Government and asked what could be done to increase the participation of Walloon research actors, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in the framework programme. Following their discussions, a National Contact Point was set up covering all the thematic areas of FP6, with special attention given to SMEs and research centres. An additional NCP was established this year dealing specifically with universities. 'We felt we really needed a proactive service as an NCP,' explained Mr Waha. 'So we went to visit companies, helping them to audit their position towards the framework programme and helping them find partners here and in other countries.' 'We discussed with them their projects and what they would want to do in FP6 and we looked in the programme to see where the best place was for them,' he added. As a part of its advisory role, the NCP also organises information days to help would-be participants prepare proposals and to inform them about the intricacies of negotiating contracts with the European Commission and understanding consortium agreements. 'Our role was to get people talking together and to understand what the Commission wants,' noted Mr Waha. In many ways, the NCP can be seen as the factor that helped unlock the potential that was already present among the different research actors, and kick-started their participation in FP6. 'I had research centres and companies coming back to me saying, 'we knew you were there so we went forward, knowing that if we had questions or needed contacts, you would be there to answer them',' said Mr Waha. Other factors behind the increased participation of Walloon's research community are the array of incentives introduced by the Government in recent years. These include guidance on intellectual property right protection; financial support to universities, research centres and SMEs to cover the costs of preparing project proposals; and a subsidy for SMEs to cover 25% of project costs. 'These [incentives] kick started the participation of smaller actors because they didn't have to mobilise as much cash to do their projects,' said Mr Waha, who pointed to the fact that a total of 92 Walloon companies participated in FP6 projects, almost three times more than in FP5. The incentives also helped quicken the pace of participation, believes Mr Waha. He heard back from some actors, who said that they would have done the project even without the extra incentives, but it enabled them to participate in a second project. In addition to the financial boost (€69 million) that participation in the framework programme brought to the region, it has also resulted in some indirect economic benefits, thanks to the participating companies and research centres. One FP6 success story is that of LASEA, a spin-off from the Space Centre of Liège, which helped to develop a new laser system for internal engraving for traceability and anti-counterfeiting purposes, and a reader for the data matrix. 'The market really needed a new solution because the former generation of laser introduced cracks in the glass,' explained the NCP coordinator. The project required bringing together different types of expertise and working at a pace quick enough to keep up with market needs, which Mr Waha believes would have been impossible to do outside of the framework programme. Mr Waha is optimistic that the NCP can keep the momentum going in FP7. Since June 2006, it has been spreading the word about the new programme and what is on offer, and advising would-be participants to start preparing their projects in advance of the first calls. Already, the NCP has seen an increase in the number of organisations seeking advice on their projects. 'It's a real step up from FP6,' he said. 'We are not only seeing those who were successful in FP6 coming to us, there are also some new faces, new companies and research centres. That means that despite our efforts there is still more untapped potential out there.' Whether these projects will be successful or not, especially given the increased number of proposals expected overall, is yet to be seen. However, Mr Waha is optimistic that as more and more FP7 funds are released over time, so Wallonia's participation will increase.