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€400m manufacturing hub withdrawn

Abandonment raises questions over EIT selection process

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology has cancelled a planned Knowledge and Innovation Community for manufacturing—after receiving just one application for its pilot phase.

KICs are EIT-funded collaborations of universities, companies and regional governments. The first three KICs—in energy, climate and digital technology—were established in 2010, and another two, in health and raw materials, started in 2014.

On 17 November, the EIT said that its governing board had “unanimously decided” a KIC could not be designated in the area of added-value manufacturing as planned. The KIC would have received €4 million from the EIT in seed money, to be followed by as much as €400m over the next seven years.

The only application for the manufacturing KIC came from a consortium led by the University of Patras in Greece and the Fraunhofer Society in Germany. “The bid didn’t meet the excellence criteria and it didn’t have the quality or innovation potential that we want to see. That was the basis for the decision,” said Martin Kern, acting director of the EIT. There was no financial reason for the cancellation, he said.

The EIT has been dogged by criticism since it was set up in 2008 under former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, as a flagship programme to rival the best research institutions in the United States.

An April 2016 report by the European Court of Auditors found that the EIT had produced little in terms of tangible impact; subsequently, the Commission set up a panel of experts to make recommendations by the end of this year on how to improve the EIT’s performance.

Launching another call for a KIC in manufacturing is “a possibility, but not the only one”, Kern says, because the EIT must first investigate why it received just one bid, and why that one failed to meet the required standard. “We’ll do an in-depth analysis, look at the lessons learnt, see what worked and where we can improve the process,” Kern said.

Terry Wilkins, an engineer at the University of Leeds and former chairman of the EU’s nanotechnology, advanced materials and production technologies  expert advisory group, said that he was “very disappointed” by the cancellation of the manufacturing KIC. The area it attempted to cover was simply too broad, he said, given that it branched into materials, processing and the automatic fabrication of devices.

But Rikardo Bueno, programmes director at the Biscay-based Tecnalia research centre, who coordinated Spain’s participation in the losing consortium, said that limiting the scope of the KIC would have been a “shortcoming” that would probably “leave out a relevant project that is doing something important for manufacturing in Europe”.

Bueno said that the problem was the selection process, which, he claimed, was conducted as if a KIC “were a small project with a couple of partners lasting for a year”. The decision was made on the basis of a 50-page proposal and a hearing of less than an hour, he said. Bueno described the process as “very limiting”, and suggested that the evaluation of each consortium should take “at least one full day” to allow assessors to properly get to grips with the proposals.

Wilkins described the single bid for the manufacturing KIC as “a failure of process that could have been foreseen”. If one consortium sets itself up early, as the Patras-led group did, it is “likelier to get money from various sources” for its bid—meaning that other potential consortia are squeezed out.

Nonetheless, Wilkins said that the competition process had been successful in setting up other KICs, which have been “sustained in Horizon 2020 and are continuing to grow”. He said that the approach was “still a winning formula”.

The EIT also announced that the winning bid in its second call, for a  KIC in food, came from FoodConnects, consisting of 50 partners including PepsiCo, the University of Cambridge and the Polish Academy of Sciences, based across 13 EU countries.

This article also appeared in Research Europe