As the second COVID-19 wave hits Europe, we speak to Teresa Riesgo, Spain’s Secretary-General for Innovation, and other leaders to find out how the continent’s public sector is investing in innovation to counteract the medical and economic consequences of the pandemic
Author: Beatriz Valero de Urquía
Change is integral to human development. Throughout history, humans have been forced to adapt in order to overcome adverse conditions, whether that be harsh weather, a challenging geography, or the spread of viruses. ‘Innovation’ might be a new term, but it’s as old as our DNA, and the rise of innovative solutions to counteract the medical and economic challenges of COVID-19 is yet another example of adaptation. By November 5, Europe had reported over 250,000 COVID-19 deaths and over 11 million cases. It is a human tragedy, but the pandemic's impact is not only medical: more than five million jobs have been lost in the European Union alone since March. The current challenge facing Europe is unprecedented and so must be the public sector’s response. Last March, while the pandemic was hitting Europe in full force, Gioia Ghezzi was voted Chairman of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Governing Board. The EIT is an independent body created by the European Union to create knowledge and innovation communities (KIC) that bring together companies and research institutions from all around Europe to solve specific problems. Currently, COVID-19 is the most pressing problem. “We quickly realised that one of the consequences of the pandemic would be a terrible economic recession,” Ghezzi says. “So we decided to free up funds very quickly, focusing in two big areas: to respond to COVID from a medical point of view, and to support our ventures, which will be devoted to driving Europe's recovery and growth.”
The EIT set up a Crisis Response Initiative, which awarded €60 million to different innovative projects to provide solutions to the pandemic by the end of the year. Some of these projects - such as AFFIX Labs’ Si-Quat, a long-lasting antiviral surface treatment; the air-powered INNOV-ventilator; the BEAMitup food hygiene testing solution; and Hospital Clinic’s COVID-19 AI tool, which we cover in the Healthcare feature of this issue - are already showing incredible results. “The EIT has been able to mobilise communities that we have built over the past 10 years, to bring innovation to the ground very quickly,” Ghezzi says. “We are part of the answer, and that’s very very exciting.” However, Ghezzi’s vision for the EIT goes far beyond the immediate response to the pandemic, and it follows the European Union’s commitment to the “twin transitions”: the digital transformation and the green revolution. “We think we should take this crisis as an opportunity to rethink profoundly the way we live and how we achieve growth,” Ghezzi says. “We very much believe in a more sustainable way of living, where sustainability and growth can go hand in hand, and this will be achieved through technology and innovation.”
A complete transformation is also the aim of Spain’s current government. Last January it created the role of Secretariat of Innovation, as part of the Ministry of Science and Innovation, and Teresa Riesgo was chosen as its first Secretary-General. The goal of this Secretariat is to make sure that Spain met European standards in terms of innovation investment. While European countries invest on average 2.4% of their GDP on research and innovation, Spain invests only 1.24%. "The first thing I think we have to do in Spain is understand that R&D expenditure is not an expense, it is an investment,” Riesgo says. To do so, the Ministry of Science and Innovation published a Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy that details the country’s plans for the next seven years. In addition to funding doctoral and postdoctoral projects, Spain invests in a public venture capital fund and alongside private co-investors, through an independent entity called INNVIERTE. "It is a different way because you are not giving straight funds or loans, but you are becoming part of the capital of the company,” Riesgo says. “You get more involved.”
Another way that the Secretariat fosters innovation is through “public purchase of innovation”, where the Ministry supports public administrations who are willing to be the first users of new technological products. “These purchases turn the administration into a more modern and riskier one,” Riesgo says. Companies won’t innovate if public administrators don’t create conditions that encourage innovation. Riesgo uses Apple’s case as an example: "We say that Apple is a super innovative company, and actually, Apple is very innovative using inventions that others made,” she says. “GPS, liquid crystal screens, the accelerometer; they were all discovered through publicly funded projects.” Moreover, as a response to COVID-19, the Spanish administration has pledged €36 million in funds to support disruptive solutions for healthcare and businesses, and it has promised a further €1 billion investment in the next two years.
"The COVID-19 fund has shown us that we work both quickly and rigorously,” Riesgo says. Thanks to this fund, Algenex, a Spanish biotech company known for developing veterinary vaccines, has begun researching a possible COVID-19 vaccine. The IMDEA Nanoscience Institute has also used these funds to develop cheap and rapid COVID-19 tests utilising a colour-changing material. Other sectors of the Spanish government have also stepped up to find solutions for the challenges posed by the pandemic. For example, the Ministry has supported several projects focused on ventilators. “Ventilators were an essential element during the toughest time of the pandemic,” Riesgo says. “In Spain it was possible to solve this problem by putting together companies that knew how to make ventilators but had very small productions with companies that were capable of manufacturing precision devices, but didn't know how to make ventilators.” Following this strategy, the Ministry of Industry collaborated with a military company to adapt its manufacturer line to produce over 5,000 ventilators. However, despite the rapid response, Spain’s COVID-19 cases were rising in early November, and its economy has been hit hard. "The pandemic has taught us our strengths, but also some of our weaknesses,” Riesgo says. These weaknesses include the country’s general economic dependence on the services sector, which was severely hit by lockdowns and social distancing restrictions. In Riesgo’s view, there is a need to diversify the country’s economy.
"Countries that have higher innovation and industrialisation rates, and a stronger and more independent generation of knowledge, have suffered the impact of COVID-19 less,” she says. “We believe that we have to change the productive model of the country and move towards greater innovation and knowledge.” However, innovation is not only beneficial for a country’s economy. It is also absolutely essential to protect our planet. “I think that Europe needs to bet on this green transition to stay at the forefront of technology,” Riesgo says. To ensure this, the European Union has created the Missions for Horizon Europe. They are projects based around the idea that having a specific goal — a “mission”— helps drive innovation, similar to President Kennedy’s 1962 promise of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. “The important thing is not putting a man on the moon, but it's something that got a lot of people excited,” Riesgo says, explaining the importance of bringing people together around a common goal. “Europe has a mission to ensure that 100 European cities are carbon-neutral by 2030. That will require a wide variety of technologies, from business models, to new cars and houses, and even new economic models.” Education, digitalisation, private investments and a sustained public bet on innovation are the key elements that Riesgo believes Spain needs to focus its efforts on to brace the impact of COVID-19 and catch-up to European technology leaders. Leaders such as Finland. Finland is the country with the largest number of digital startups per capita, and one of only seven countries globally that exports more health technology than it imports. A key to this success is the work of Business Finland, a public organisation that focuses on funding innovative projects, supporting the internationalisation of Finnish companies, encouraging international investors to invest in Finland and promoting tourism.
“We have a national interest and mandate to direct taxpayer’s money to investments that are expected to bring wellbeing back to society by the way of the growth of our businesses, revenues from exports and new jobs,” says Kari Klossner, Programme Manager and Head of Smart Life Finland at Business Finland. Currently, Business Finland is focused on the digital transformation of healthcare. While other countries struggle to put together accessible medical data, Finland already has a national electronic health system that covers 100% of the nations’ clinical records. It is the perfect base to develop strong remote healthcare services. “We’ll never quite go 100% back to the ‘old way’,” Klossner says. “The care delivery mechanisms now being implemented at a fast pace will remain – because they make sense, economically and care wise. No doubt in many cases seeing the doctor is still going to be necessary, but much can also be done remotely, with a much quicker response time and efficient use of medical resources.” Moreover, new technologies like artificial intelligence are also offering the possibility of including preventive and predictive solutions. “In the long run they support the change to more value-based healthcare, where the human as an individual is in focus,” Klossner says. But remote healthcare is only one of the 20,000 projects that Business Finland supports with its €1 billion crisis fund.
Disior Oy, a company that can turn CT and MRI images into 3D mathematical models to improve analysis and outcome assessment, has been one of the companies that has put these crisis funds to use during the pandemic. Another one is Nukute, which has developed a sleep monitoring device to assess breathing quality in COVID-19 patients, and the cross-industry project TUPA. TUPA analyses COVID-19’s transmission both in hospitals and in public spaces, after Finnish Michelin-star awarded chef Henri Alén contacted the research team to set up a virus transmission simulation in his restaurant, which was recently launched. “The objective of the consortium is to examine and predict the transmission routes by combining the knowledge obtained from hospital environment and restaurants, and to create a synthesis of effective safety procedures,” Klossner says. Finland has been investing in digital healthcare for decades, and therefore has a clear advantage over other countries that have only recently embraced the digital transformation journey.
“Going digital is a slow and long adoption process,” Klossner says. “It’s a big ship that turns slowly, and often the bigger the country the slower the rate of turn. The adoption is much more about change management than it is about technology.” The turn might be slow, but it’s necessary. In Klossner’s opinion, there were three key aspects behind Finland’s digital healthcare success: strategic support and infrastructure from the government, culture and education. “But we also got lucky a little bit,” he says. “When Nokia exited Finland, it also released a lot of resources in this country who were very knowledgeable in radio technology and mobile applications, and now all that brain power is being applied to digital health.” Although luck can’t be replicated, it is never too late to improve education, as well as the public administrations’ commitment to innovation. People generally dislike change. However, COVID-19 has already disrupted everyone’s lives, both personally and professionally. Public institutions are taking advantage of that need to change to ensure the version of Europe that comes out of the pandemic is healthier, greener and more innovative.