Why did you decide to become a Member of the EIT Governing Board?
After retiring as CEO at Shell I thought I would like to contribute by promoting a more real and active approach to innovation in Europe.
Is business well-represented in the EIT community?
Just about, I’d say, but it could be more. If I look at the Governing Board of the EIT, it’s not always easy to get business people involved. But it’s important because they bring a lot of practical experience. It’s the same story with the KICs.
What are the main benefits for business of getting involved with the EIT/KICs?
The ‘golden helix’ of education, business and the input of ‘Brussels’ and government is attractive and beneficial for all.
What is the best example of an innovation emerging from the EIT’s KICs that you have come across?
I wouldn’t like to select one single example. There are a lot of excellent examples in the KICs. We need a combination of things to happen to encourage innovation. For example, that students in the advanced level of education learn about how to start companies.
Why do you think Europe has long been struggling to keep up with its global competitors when it comes to innovation?
If you look at patents in Europe, it’s not a bad continent at all. But the problem is how to go from patents and thinking to getting new products out there. That’s difficult because of our fragmented markets.
Are Europe’s education systems providing people with the right attitude, skills and knowledge for the future?
They’re not doing too badly. But I think that learning how to set up your own company should be an obligatory part of the curriculum at every advanced education course at university or technical college. This would be a tremendous help.
Can the EIT-labelled programmes at Master and PhD level be a role model for European entrepreneurial education?
The answer to that is simply yes. It shouldn’t just be about balance sheets.
Is Europe too risk-averse to make the most of its entrepreneurial potential? What role can the EIT play? Can it change mind-sets?
I don’t think Europe is necessarily risk averse, but it’s difficult to set up your own business, for the reason I already mentioned – fragmented markets – and due to the barriers a start-up faces in hiring its first and second employees. The EIT can certainly help to overcome those difficulties. It’s not just about money. It’s about getting the right programmes on education curricula.
You are one of the keynote speakers at the INNOVEIT – EIT Innovation Forum in May. Why do events like this matter?
Events like this help to promote the EIT, of course, and the Forum is a way for me personally to inject some of my ideas into the innovation debate. It is a nice combination of students, senior business experts and people from ‘Brussels’.
For you, who is the most inspirational innovator or entrepreneur in Europe?
That would have to be Desiderius Erasmus, who brought a new mind-set to Europe in the Renaissance period. Thanks to the Erasmus exchange programme, which allows students to do part of their degree course in another country, that mind-set lives on today. Erasmus has widened the horizons of millions of students. The Erasmus experience is a very good basis for starting your own company. It helps people realise that there are many different roads to Rome.
If you could change one thing about EU entrepreneurship and innovation policy, what would it be?
It would be about how we can make it easier for start-ups to go from one-man-band companies to firms with 10-20 employees. I think every country needs to review why companies don’t employ more people.