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Op-ed: EIT Governing Board Chair Nektarios Tavernarakis on the EIT's success

The following article was originally published on Euractiv

The power of a network: how one innovation agency is behind thousands of groundbreaking start-ups

There is an exciting network of innovators working to solve Europe’s most pressing problems. Since its inception, it has contributed to the success of 7 800 start-ups and scale-ups, and has seen 6 000 Master’s and PhD students graduate. It has helped to create more than 2 110 new products or services and seen their start-ups raise more than EUR 7.3 billion in external capital. Eight of them have even become unicorns – companies valued at more than USD 1 billion.

I am talking about the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT), Europe’s largest innovation network, and the only one with an on-the-ground presence in every EU Member State.

The success of the EIT lies in our unique model – we support innovators, learners and entrepreneurs at every step of the way. We set up the ecosystem needed for innovation to thrive: from entrepreneurship education (training and skilling) through innovation projects (connecting research and science to commercialisation) to boosting businesses and creating start-ups.

Our strength lies in our robust network of experts from business, education and research. Counting 2 400 partners in more than 50 innovation hubs in Europe and beyond, the EIT enables strategic cross-sectoral innovation to address the challenges our continent faces.

How to steer a network towards impact

Since 2008, we have set-up nine Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs). Our first three KICs – EIT Climate-KIC, EIT Digital, and EIT InnoEnergy – will soon enter their 15th year of operations. All three have achieved significant success in line with our innovation model and in their specific thematic areas but have also forged different paths and excelled in unique ways.

For example, EIT Climate-KIC have proven a catalyst for systemic change, creating a methodology to shift entire industries towards circular economy practices. They have engaged thousands of citizens in collaborative and open innovation forums and hosted award-winning hackathons. Two start-ups they have supported have become unicorns – Lilium Aviation and Climeworks.

EIT Digital have built up their Master School, ushering in a wave of entrepreneurial education in STEM in partnership with the top tech universities in Europe. Their 'EIT Digital Master School' have around 4000 alumni, they run 11 summer schools across 10 cities and more than 200,000 learners have attended their online courses.

Moreover, EIT InnoEnergy are now recognised globally among the most active sustainable energy investors. Their 200+ portfolio companies are on track to generate EUR 72.8 billion in revenue and save 1.1 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions annually by 2030. As an example, their support proved pivotal for Northvolt, a Swedish battery giant, building several gigafactories in Europe to manufacture the world’s cleanest EV battery. They were supported by EIT InnoEnergy at a stage when private equity was not yet ready to invest and have now grown to a decacorn, with a market valuation of more than EUR 10 billion.

Behind these KICs is the EIT, who continues to nurture and welcome new partnerships dedicated towards powering sustainable impact in Europe.

Responding to needs of the future

Now, the EIT is entering a new stage, our exceptional ecosystem has been built, and it’s time to deploy it to sectors that need innovation the most.  This means driving our network to tackle strategic targets that increase Europe’s competitiveness and sustainability.

One example is our new flagship programme, the Deep Tech Talent Initiative. It targets Europe’s increasing skills gap in the technology sector. Using our network, the EIT and its partners have committed to training one million workers in fields such as machine learning, cybersecurity and biotechnology by 2025. We have targeted over 770 000 talents to date and offer 90 education courses together with 116 partners. This initiative complements the EIT’s existing education portfolio that equips students and innovators from technical backgrounds with the skills they need to transform their ideas into market-ready solutions.

Our agile ecosystem is also able to pivot to find solutions in a rapidly changing world. In response to the war in Ukraine, the EIT Community opened a regional hub in Kyiv to connect local actors, innovators and partners to our ecosystem. The new hub boosts ideas and businesses emerging from Ukraine and provides vital support in these exceptionally difficult times. The hub is part of the EIT Regional Innovation Scheme (EIT RIS), another strategic programme designed to use our network for impact – tackling Europe’s regional innovation divide.

Simply put, our expertise lends the opportunity to leverage innovation where Europe needs it.

A new wave of innovation to transform Europe

2024 marks a significant milestone for the EIT Community: Our first three KICs, and their communities that we have helped build from the ground up, will now grow beyond the EIT’s funding.

EIT Climate-KIC has revealed a plan to become financially sustainable, moving towards a systems-innovation-as-a-service model. What’s more, EIT Digital has found ways to almost completely self-finance its education courses, while also earmarking over a million euros in scholarships for students.

And late last year, EIT InnoEnergy announced a financing round of EUR 140 million from private partners, income that it will reinvest into its public mandate.

Creating and steering these communities over the past fifteen years has been no small task, and it’s rewarding to see that with the expertise of the EIT many of our KICs have carved out leadership roles in key EU strategic areas. The new wave of innovation unleashed by these mature innovation communities will make European economies more resilient, globally competitive, and on-track to carbon-neutrality by 2050.

To learn more about what is ahead for EIT’s unique network of innovation, join us online or in Brussels on 20 February for the EIT Summit 2024. Held as part of our annual INNOVEIT event series, it will feature the EIT Awards highlighting our most promising innovations and brightest innovators, insightful panels on future-focused topics and the chance to get to know all our EIT KICs.