Universities as central innovation actors

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Horizon Europe and the revamped European Research Area gave a new impetus to impact-oriented research. Over the past months, the European Commission and its executive agencies also launched policy discussions on new instruments to increase the impacts of EU-funded research projects. The Guild, via its innovation working group, engaged rigorously in these discussions.

Enhancing universities’ capacities to innovate

© University of Tartu/Andres Tennus (2021)

With the support of The Guild, the European Commission proposed the renewal of its Recommendation of 10 April 2008 on the management of intellectual property in knowledge transfer activities. In a meeting with our innovation working group, Ioannis Sagias (Directorate- General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) explained that the EU member states would lead the design of new Guiding Principles for Knowledge Valorization and that stakeholders would be engaged in the further elaboration of these principles in specific Codes of Practice.

The University of Ljubljana’s Knowledge Transfer Office, which was Slovenia’s representative in the ERA Forum group in charge of designing the Guiding Principles, initially led our work providing input on the initial drafts. The Guild called for specific support to universities’ knowledge and technology transfer activities (including dedicated funding in addition to research funding) as well as for better recognition of research valorisation in researchers’ careers and universities’ activities. It also highlighted the importance of further engaging research stakeholders in the design of the Guiding Principles and follow-up Codes of Practice.

In line with this last recommendation, The Guild participated in stakeholder consultations on the Guiding Principles organised by the European Commission in March 2022. It also appointed Professor Jonathan Cooper (University of Glasgow) as its representative in the Community of Practice in charge of designing the Code of Practice for Smart Use of Intellectual Property (IP).

Joint workshop on impacts in Horizon Europe projects

In February 2022, the Research Support Office (RSO) and the Innovation working groups jointly organised a workshop to exchange good practices to increase the impacts of Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe projects. The ambition of this internal event was to break silos between the RSOs and the Knowledge Transfer Offices. The aim was also to foster collaboration all along the life cycle of research projects, i.e. from the preparation of the grant proposals to the commercialization of the research outcomes.

For this purpose, Ghent University and the University of Groningen presented their renewed strategies and internal re-organisation for better collaboration between the two departments. Similarly, Research Support Officers and Knowledge Transfer Officers from other Guild universities shared their experience on how to best engage with industrial partners, foresee exploitation strategies early in the project design, and reconcile knowledge valorization with open science.

In addition to these internal exchanges of good practices, both groups discussed with DG RTD’s Ann- Sofie Ronnlund the new approach to impact in Horizon Europe. They also had an intensive discussion with Elena Martines (European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency (EISMEA)) on how universities can best engage with, and benefit from, the European Innovation Council (EIC).

Similarly, Research Support Officers and Knowledge Transfer Officers from other Guild universities shared their experience on how to best engage with industrial partners, foresee exploitation strategies early in the project design, and reconcile knowledge valorisation with open science.

In addition to these internal exchanges of good practices, both groups discussed with DG RTD’s Ann-Sofie Ronnlund the new approach to impact in Horizon Europe. They also had an intensive discussion with Elena Martines (European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency (EISMEA)) on how universities can best engage with, and benefit from, the European Innovation Council (EIC).

Exploiting inventions funded by the European Innovation Council

In a follow-up discussion with EISMEA, the innovation working group expressed concern about provisions in the EIC work programme and the Horizon Model Grant Agreement, which grant EIC-funded inventors indefinite access rights to their inventions on a royalty-free basis. The Guild questions the relevance of these provisions and of their underlying assumption that EIC inventors may be best placed to exploit the results of their research.

As we highlight in our input to the Guiding Principles for Knowledge Valorisation, ensuring that research performing organisations across Europe have well-functioning Technology/Knowledge Transfer Offices in place would be a more effective and efficient approach to maximise exploitation of research results. The support that universities provide for knowledge and technology transfer is especially important when researchers do not have the skills, capacities, incentives and/or the mindset required for the successful exploitation of their research results.

Finally, we submitted that these provisions may conflict with universities’ institutional rules or national and regional regulations on handling intellectual properties or exploiting research results. Legal uncertainties may even be higher when inventions result from research projects funded through multiples sources that include the EIC, each of which has different exploitation requirements. In consequence, The Guild followed up with further discussions with EISMEA on how the EIC inventors’ access right rules should be interpreted and implemented in universities to limit these detrimental effects.