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Climate of unity

The Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community connects businesses with academia to find innovative ways of combating climate change. Rebecca Hill spoke to the Climate-KIC’s managers to ask what makes it tick.

Last month the European Parliament approved a budget of €2.7 billion for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology in 2014-20, a huge increase on the €300 million for 2008-13. Much of it will go towards increasing the number of Knowledge and Innovation Communities in the EIT’s network from three to eight. With this in mind, the work of the existing KICs is back in the spotlight.

The KICs connect businesses to research organisations and universities, to increase entrepreneurship and innovation in areas with market potential: energy, ICT and climate change. The Climate-KIC has 12 hubs in 10 countries and 25 partners, of which about half are companies. About 30 per cent of participants are academics and the rest are from public or not-for-profit bodies across Europe. The KIC’s HQ is in London.

The partners look at different areas of climate innovation, including sustainable city systems, land and water technologies and reduction of industry emissions.

The three KICs share ideas but developed independently. Malte Schneider, director of Climate-KIC Germany, says that the Climate-KIC sets itself apart by judging its impact on more than just economic growth. “I think the Climate-KIC is unique because we address a societal challenge—something that unites us and that people are passionate about beyond just profits or competitiveness,” he says.

In order to receive support from the organisation, a start-up must prove that its innovation will have a substantial impact on climate mitigation or adaptation, explains Hero Prins, director of Climate-KIC Netherlands. The selection process for a company to be brought into the development pipeline, in which it could receive up to €95,000, is tough. “But that’s good, because now we have a reputation for really strong start-ups,” he says.

Schneider says the Climate-KIC’s strength is its togetherness. “This network of trusted relationships will not only develop innovation with funding from the EIT; it will bring together innovative people and organisations to exploit innovation opportunities, be it with funding from Horizon 2020 or from national schemes.”

The KIC’s initial setup was not easy, Schneider admits, as participants had to work from a business plan given to them by the EIT. “It’s funny—normally a start-up starts with some ideas and gradually forms a bigger business plan, but we had the additional challenge of implementing an ambitious agenda from the start,” he says.

Schneider warns that the groups bidding for the forthcoming KICs—many of which have already asked the existing three for advice—must manage their expectations. “You need to set realistic timescales and be aware that different areas of your portfolio will take different times to achieve and may lead to different focuses over the years.”

For example, there has recently been an increase in international cooperation at the Climate-KIC. Just last month the KIC announced an agreement with Tianjin, a city in China. “We were inundated with requests from Chinese cities and organisations, saying that they knew they had to deliver sustainable, eco-smart cities but didn’t know how to do it,” says Ian Short, a member of the KIC’s governing board.

The collaboration will include projects on retrofitting buildings to make them more environmentally friendly and producing data and technology strategies for smart cities. Short says this will be an exemplar of how to deliver smart districts. “This is bigger and more aspirational than anything I’ve seen in Europe,” he says.

Apart from innovation and entrepreneurship, the Climate-KIC is running education activities for graduates. One of the initiatives sends 40 to 50 students on a five-week training scheme in three partner countries. The aim is to equip them with entrepreneurial skills and help them build relationships with like-minded researchers.

Ebrahim Mohamed, director of education at the Climate-KIC, says that this is crucial to the future of climate science, which has to penetrate all areas of society to be successful. With climate, he says, there is no existing big industrial base or model to follow, so the group has had to be “really creative”.

To date, the Climate-KIC’s funding from the EIT has approximately doubled each year to reach €45m in 2013. Despite competition from other KICs, it hopes for further funding increases throughout Horizon 2020. “I think overall the Climate-KIC has been successful and some elements have been very successful,” Short says. “I’m certain it will lead globally on climate change and sustainability and attract more and more people.”

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