Chinese Academy of Engineering Address "Innovation Ecosystems and the EIT's Concept of Knowledge Innovation Communities"

Beijing, China

17 October 2013

Vice-President XIE of the Chinese Academy of Engineering; Members of the Academy; Ambassador of Ireland to China His Excellency Paul Kavanagh; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen; Good morning,

It’s a pleasure to be here, and to have this opportunity to talk to this distinguished audience about innovation in Europe, and particularly the role that university education plays in European innovation.

I’m here in my capacity as President, or Provost as we historically call it, of Trinity College, the University of Dublin. Trinity is Ireland’s leading university and it is ranked 18th in Europe and 61st in the world according to the latest QS rankings.

I’m also here as a member of the governing board of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the EIT. The EIT is a body of the European Union with a mission to increase Europe’s growth and competitiveness by reinforcing innovation capacity. The EIT governing board represents a balance of individuals active across education, research, and industry. It was a great honour to be appointed to this board - I took it as a tribute to both Ireland’s and Trinity’s commitment to innovation.

Today I’ll be talking about the EIT and its actions and plans for European innovation, and I’ll be talking about Trinity, about Dublin, and about Ireland as an example of how innovation can work in a European university, in a capital city, and in a small European country such as Ireland.


First of all, let’s take a look at innovation in Europe. Is Europe an innovative place? Does it create products, services, new technologies and improved technologies which people want?

The answer to that is: Yes and No.

Europe has an amazing track-record as the crucible of great ideas turned into products and services that permeate the world – from the car to opera, from ballet to radio, from croissants to pizza. Ground-breaking, game-changing things like the printing press or the steam engine; drugs such as aspirin and penicillin; medical devices of all kinds: thermometers, x-rays, radar, stethoscopes, hip prostheses – all these were invented or discovered in Europe.

Europe has a phenomenal record for innovation, and within Europe certain countries continue to perform excellently, pioneering in mobile telecoms and leading technologies in automotive and aviation industries.

But, it’s no secret that Europe as a continent is not as successful at innovation as it once was.  It is striking that many inventions which had their origins in Europe were then commercialised in North America – things like aviation and cinema in the early 20th century.  

And in recent decades Europe’s competitiveness has suffered further. The markers of the contemporary age - laptops, tablets, smartphones, social networking – are not, for the most part, European creations. The market leaders in new technologies are in the US and Asia.

To get across this point, let’s look at two key indicators of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Look at this data taken from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor:


It shows the percentage of the adult population engaged in entrepreneurship – that is the percentage who own their own businesses: US – 13%; Germany – 5.3%; UK – 7.6%; France – 5.7%; Ireland – 6.1%.

And 2011 data of the percentage that companies in the EU, China, the US and South Korea spend on Research & Development. EU – 1.1%; China – 1.36%; US – 1.65%; South Korea – 2.97%. These figures are taken from article by EU Commissioner for Research, Mrs Máire Geoghegan Quinn, Irish Times on 7th October 2013.

And in fact these figures don’t tell the full story. The real story is that in the past decade, R&D intensity grew very slightly in Europe, but in China, as of course you know, it has almost doubled. According to the OECD, China’s average real growth in R&D spending has been close to 20% in the past decade, making it the world’s second largest R&D performer, and well ahead of the EU.

Of course, as you know, the EU is a union of 28 countries, so there is much diversity – German companies’ Research & Development figure for instance is about twice the EU average. But thinking in terms of general European competitiveness, not in terms of individual countries, we cannot be satisfied with the performance of Europe as a whole. We want all EU members to be performing at a high level; and moreover we want all EU members to be realising their potential and building on Europe’s enormously strong tradition in innovation.

This is where the EIT comes in.

* * *EIT* * *

The EIT seeks to achieve a step change in innovation in Europe. Our mission is to foster a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. We recognise that Europe is teeming with ideas and with gifted people, creativity is high, but that too often ideas remain untranslated into impact and therefore people’s potential remains unrealised.

From my point of view as a university president, and from the point of view of my colleagues around Europe, it’s obvious that something is not quite working because we know that our universities are performing well. Europe continues to have world-renowned universities like Oxford, Cambridge, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Imperial College London, and the University of Heidelberg, and indeed I could include my own university Trinity College Dublin and many more – all these are high-performing, world-famous, and highly-ranked.

So there’s a kind of disconnect: universities that are high-performing in research are not, generally-speaking, leading sufficiently to growth, competitiveness and innovative products and services in Europe.

Europe has excellent ideas, excellent universities, and excellent students. But this isn’t translating sufficiently into excellent products, strong markets, and budding entrepreneurs.

We need to facilitate the transitions:

  • from idea to product,
  • from lab to market,
  • and from student to entrepreneur.

The EIT was founded almost six years ago to facilitate such transitions. The EU already has a number of programmes focused on job creation and on boosting research and development, so some people have wondered whether we need this new institute. Our answer is that the EU’s existing programmes are good at developing specific projects, but we need to go beyond this.

We need a game-change; we need to try something more daring if we are to promote a step-change in innovation in the EU. We seek a sustainable solution for the continent as a whole; we seek to link up Europe’s fragmented innovation and research systems through facilitating common working between Europe’s education, business, and research and technology communities. In short, the purpose of the EIT is to build innovation ecosystems across Europe.

* * *Innovation Ecosystem* * *

You are possibly familiar with the phrase ‘innovation ecosystem’ – it’s used to denote the conditions necessary for innovation and entrepreneurship to flourish.

When conditions are good in a country’s ‘innovation ecosystem’, you find businesses, individual entrepreneurs and investors, universities, and government bodies interacting in the right regulatory environment (the right tax incentives, labour laws, bankruptcy laws, etc.) to create jobs and open up opportunities.

The biological metaphor is apt: it gets across the idea of the different players, or “organisms”, interacting to sustain growth. Think of all the factors like sun and rain and pollinators and biodiversity which are necessary to sustain growth and fertility.

And then imagine removing sun or rain or honeybees or diverse plantlife, and you get a much harsher, less fertile environment. That’s what happens if you take away good regulation, or university expertise, or industry know-how from the ecosystem.

At the moment, the innovation ecosystem in some European countries works very well, but it’s premature to talk about ‘Europe’s innovation ecosystem’ because, rather than one, large, united terrain - when it comes to innovation, Europe is still divided into fragmented territories. This is hindering growth across the continent.

*  *  *Knowledge Triangles and Knowledge Communities* * *

The EIT wants to get Europe’s innovation ecosystem working. We envisage a “Knowledge Triangle”, as on this slide:

Knowledge Triangle

Higher Education is of course universities; Business is the private commercial sector; and Research and Technology are State-funded institutes such as the Max Planck scientific research organisation in Germany, and other leading centres of fundamental or translational research whether associated with industry, universities, or governmental organisations.

The idea is to integrate the three parts of the triangle to create a pan-European group that will drive entrepreneurship and innovation. This group is given a special name: the Knowledge and Innovation Community, or KIC for short.

Each KIC is funded by the EIT to bring together knowledge triangle partners to create value for European citizens. Three KICs are already underway. They are in areas specially chosen by the European Parliament:

  • Climate Change, called Climate KIC;
  • ICT, called EIT ICT Labs; and
  • Sustainable Energy, called KIC Innoenergy.

Obviously these are crucial areas, not only for entrepreneurship but for quality of life and the environment.

These three KICs have been running for the past three years. Let’s take a look at what they’ve achieved, because this will give you an idea of EIT goals and specific actions. 

For Climate KIC, an incubator network has been established across Europe – 11 incubators have incubated a total of 78 ideas. Via SME innovation vouchers and support, twenty SMEs were helped innovate in 2012. The Pioneers-into-Practice programme aims to train already multi-skilled people to address climate change challenges – in 2012, 172 such people were mentored and trained; they now join a community of 300 KIC-climate ‘change agents’ across Europe.

EIT ICT Labs adopted an invest for impact approach which has generated more than 40 knowledge adaptations and transfers, created more than ten new companies, and launched more than 15 new products and services.

KIC Innoenergy currently has 41 innovation projects running, involving 108 enterprises, of which half are SMEs. 45 new products and services are forecast, with 25 patents already filed. Regarding entrepreneur incubation, 184 entrepreneurs with a business idea are currently being ‘nurtured’, and the “KIC Innoenergy highway” now consists of 25 ventures, with eight start-ups already created. And a team of five student-entrepreneurs came second in the Bill Clinton-sponsored worldwide contest, HULT Global challenge.

These slides show the some of the metrics graphically:

KIC Partners

KIC Categories

What’s important about all this activity is that it is Europe-wide, and it involves the successful integration of the three sides of the Knowledge Triangle – education, research, and business.

Three months ago we agreed on five future KICs to be selected in three waves:

  • Two in 2014: ‘Raw Materials’ and ‘Healthy Living and Active Ageing’
  • Two in 2016: ‘Food4Future’ and ‘Added-Value Manufacturing’
  • And one in 2018: ‘Urban Mobility’

We will shortly be launching a call for proposals for European universities and businesses to prepare their bids, and start building networks.

Educating young Europeans to be entrepreneurs is part of the KIC concept, by (i) appropriate course work delivered in a mode that maximizes availability in the European Higher Education Area, and (ii) using experiential learning that would leverage the networks implicit in the knowledge triangle.

The existing KICs will of course continue. Ideally, within a decade we will have multiple Knowledge and Innovation Communities, operating in key areas, across the continent. I should say, of course, that partners will not only be European, but global. A flourishing innovation ecosystem in Europe means a flourishing global innovation ecosystem.

* * *Global Innovation Ecosystem* * *

“No man is an island
Entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent
A part of the main.
[…] Any man’s death diminishes me
Because I am a part of mankind.”

This was written by an English poet, John Donne, 400 years ago. It catches what Buddhists call “the interconnectedness of all things.”

My university is a member of CLUSTER, which is a consortium of twelve elite European universities of science and technology, with associate members from round the world. In its policy statement, CLUSTER declares that:

in a world facing unprecedented challenges… the well-being of our society cannot be founded by a single nation or single engineering discipline. Instead, these challenges call for truly international, multi-disciplinary collaboration and a new mindset.”

CLUSTER’s policy statement is saying – in admittedly a rather less poetic way – the same thing as John Donne. We cannot operate in isolation. This has always been the case. But in the past few decades, advances in travel, communications and trade mean that we now have the opportunity to be more outward-looking and internationally-oriented than ever before. And when I say opportunity, I mean necessity.

As educators we are now operating in a radically changed environment to the one we studied in as undergraduates. I was an undergraduate in engineering in the 1980s, and a young lecturer in the 1990s. Most heads of universities round the world are of a similar age to me, or older. In the relatively short period since we graduated, the world of education has changed enormously and fundamentally, and these changes have accelerated in the past decade.

There have been major, ground-breaking changes in higher education – for instance professors, and even students, are now entrepreneurs, attuned to considering the impact of their research and scholarship, including the  commercial potential of their research and to seeking out industry partners.

There has also been a huge increase in international academic collaborations. Staff, students, and research projects are no longer identified with one institution as they once were. Higher education is now a global and borderless activity where national borders have a declining significance as regards selection of universities by students and Faculty. Universities are global nodes for the flow of people and information.

It is in universities that "boundaries to our existing knowledge are explored and crossed; it is there that unfettered thinking can thrive, and unconstrained intellectual partnerships can be created. It is there, within each new class, within each new generation, that the future is forged."  So how can universities best play their part in the innovation ecosystem? Well, I can only speak for Trinity so I want to dedicate the rest of my talk to telling you a bit about what we are doing in Trinity to help create a flourishing ecosystem in Ireland, Europe, and the world. At the end I will come back to general points that the EIT can support.


To explain what we’re doing about innovation in Trinity, I should first tell you a little bit about Ireland, since of course Trinity’s location determines the kind of innovation we practice.

Ireland is an island in western Europe. We’re unusual among European countries in that we were colonised – in fact we’re often known as Britain’s earliest colony - a “laboratory for the experiment of colonization”, as one of my historian colleagues has termed it. We are now approaching the centenary of independence, which was gained in 1921.

We were the first colony to leave the British Empire since the Americans, and this got us a lot of attention on the world stage in the 20th century. Another reason why Ireland is well known is that the world is full of people of Irish descent. There has been large-scale emigration from Ireland for two centuries and there are now huge Irish diasporas in Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and increasingly China.

For a decade - from 1998 to 2008 – Ireland was also famous for having one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. This was the period when we were known as ‘the Celtic Tiger’. The world financial crash of 2008 hit Ireland hard, particularly the banking sector. Things haven’t been easy but I think we’re dealing with the crisis well and the mood in the country is broadly optimistic.  

At the time of independence in 1921, Ireland had a predominantly agricultural economy. We now have a knowledge and service economy, although food exports remain sizeable. Ireland has a population of only 4.5 million, and employment in industry is through Foreign Direct Investment, with associated linked companies. Many multinationals have their European or regional bases in Ireland.

MNCs in Ireland

– companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Apple, PayPal, eBay, Accenture and Warner Chilcott. Part of the reason why these companies locate in Ireland is that we have a favourable business environment and a well-educated workforce.

In such a landscape, educating for a global workplace is of course crucial. Our national strategy is to build on the multinational presence and create our own high-tech companies. This has already started happening. 

Developing into a ‘knowledge economy’ - where knowledge is turned into wealth through the intellectual capabilities and skills of the people - makes sense for small countries on the peripheries of Europe, like Ireland or Finland. We don’t have the density of population to be large-scale manufacturing countries, but we do have the advantage of access to the huge European, and global markets.

Any country that wants to be a knowledge economy needs a strong technological base and a globally-competitive education system. ‘National transformation through universities’ is the aspiration, and in Ireland there is broad consensus that the university sector is crucial and must be prioritized.


Ireland has about forty higher education institutes, including large multidisciplinary universities in the main cities. Trinity, as I’ve said, is Ireland’s leading university and is instrumental to Ireland’s goal to be a strong knowledge economy.

Trinity is one of the world’s oldest universities – it was founded 421 years ago. Today the campus is a wonderful mix of beautiful old Renaissance buildings and very modern contemporary buildings.

It is located in the heart of Dublin city, which is why it’s also called the University of Dublin. Staff and students alike benefit from the urban dynamism, and the city benefits from our presence.

Let’s just look at two maps now:

This is the centre of Dublin:

Dublin's Creative SpacesDublin Dock


Here’s the Trinity campus in the red shaded area and these yellow dots show the creative spaces – the art galleries, the studios, the digital and enterprise centres. As you can see Trinity is at the heart of a thriving creative industry.

And this map shows the national and multinational high tech companies located close to Trinity:

Irish Tech Ecosystem

Here is the area known as ‘Dublin Dock’ where Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn are located, as well as Irish companies. And finally we merge these and add the start ups to show the clustering of creative industries around Trinity to demonstrate graphically just how central Trinity is to the Irish innovation ecosystem.

Trinity & Innovation Ecosystem


And indeed, Trinity takes every advantage of its position. Since 2009, Trinity has averaged seven new spin-out companies a year and twenty percent of all Irish spin-out companies now stem from Trinity.

Furthermore Trinity has developed strong relations with many of the multinationals located nearby who are interested in benefitting from Trinity research and projects. Google, in particular, has been a strong supporter of Trinity’s Science Gallery, a unique initiative where science projects are showcased like art exhibitions – or “where art and science collide”, as we say.

Many of Trinity’s spin-out companies have been extremely successful and have attracted large-scale investment over the last few years. Trinity spin-outs are not confined to one area. Here are some of our brand-new spin-out companies from this year which include e-learning technologies, cloud security, and a nanopatterning fabrication company. This diversity has come about because Trinity is an interdisciplinary university. We have 24 Schools, ranging from Business, Drama, and Law, to Chemistry, Engineering, and Medicine. It’s college policy to encourage Schools to collaborate.

In terms of commercialisation, the products and services arising from Trinity research come out of this interdisciplinary approach, and our researchers seek to link up with a range of different industry partners.

***Actions for Innovation and Entrepreneurship***

As I’ve said Trinity averages seven new spin-out companies a year. But this has only been the case since 2009. Previously between 1986 and 2009 we averaged only one company a year. Our Science Gallery was only established in 2008, and other important innovation initiatives like our Masters in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship and our Innovation Academy for PhD students were founded even more recently.

I want to take a look at what we did, and are still doing, to plan for innovation and entrepreneurship. I have isolated three key actions:

1) An international and diverse student body

Innovation is about global connectivity and best international practice. This has to start with the students: you don’t get world-class innovation if your students are inward-looking, parochial, and afraid to travel or learn other languages.

Trinity has an international student body: 20% of our undergraduates are from non-Irish backgrounds, and almost a third of our postgrads. We also encourage our students go abroad for a semester and foreign students to come to us.

Trinity has always educated graduates who take their skills far afield, and today our 95,000 alumni are spread over 130 countries, working in diverse professions.

2) The second action is about increasing research collaborations and creating markets for new courses.

Our staff members are more international again than our students. Over a third of our staff are non-Irish, and in the past decade or so, Trinity has extended its international research collaborations. Today, we have research collaborations with 110 countries worldwide.

The UK and the US are our top two collaborators – unsurprising as we share a language and a history. We have increasing numbers of collaborations with China, Japan, and India.

Trinity’s research collaborations with China have tripled over the past ten years and China’s position among Trinity’s top 25 international collaborators has moved from 19 in 2002 to 12 in 2012.

And since this is an Academy of Engineering and I’m an engineer, let’s take a closer look at collaborations within our School of Engineering. This is a graph showing our top 20 collaborating countries in terms of co-authorship.

Co-Authored Collaborations

China as you see is our third strongest non-European collaborator, after the US and India.

And our research collaborations extend to creating new comparative courses, jointly offered by two or more universities.

3) Our third action is about encouraging an innovative mindset in staff and students through creating innovation pathways.

In order to create an environment where staff and students start thinking about releasing the commercial potential of their research and focusing on potential markets outside their own country, Trinity has developed a number of innovation pathways. These pathways are about moving from the ideas phase into something concrete and profitable. The thinking behind creating innovation pathways is the same as the thinking behind the EIT’s knowledge and innovation communities. We want to facilitate the transitions:

  • from idea to product,
  • from lab to market,
  • and from student to entrepreneur.

In Trinity we have a number of innovation pathways to help us do this, for students and for staff.

* * *Student Innovation pathways* * *

Three years ago we established the Innovation Academy. This educates PhD students to develop opportunities for innovation arising from their research. It is interdisciplinary and inter-institutional – bringing together students from three Irish universities. Ideally, in coming years, it will involve students from beyond the island of Ireland. Indeed, from China. There is no reason why not.

The Innovation Academy provides a range of modules, including creative thinking, protecting your idea, and planning and financing your venture. And it gets students to work in groups to solve real-world problems identified by industry and partner organisations.  

Two months ago, a new programme, LaunchBox, saw our students pitching for investment in their business ventures. Six teams of students were provided with seed funding, office space, and master classes in marketing and funding. The programme was supported by business leaders who provided investment and mentoring.

Products already incubated under the LaunchBox programme include WifiGuard’, which uses a household wifi to detect home intruders; and BiteLock’, a new type of bicycle lock, designed to immobilise a bicycle in an attempted theft. Our students are extremely excited about realising their ideas.

With reference to the EIT, I see a kind of ‘knowledge triangle’ in Trinity to make the knowledge triangle operable locally between:

  • education being “international education”;
  • research being “international research collaborations”;
  • and business being “innovation pathways”.

Knowledge Triangle

My ambition is to strengthen all three and get them working in dynamic synergy so that staff and students, collaborating with international partners, can commercialise their ideas and research and so help grow the economy and improve society.

* * *Conclusion* * *

So these are some of the things Trinity has been doing to encourage innovation. I know that other European universities have similar programmes. Together with the EIT, innovation ecosystems can be built that synergise with each other.

The EIT came about because education, research and industry leaders looked at how things were run in successful innovation microcosms – not just in Europe, but round the world. These leaders thought about scaling up – to reproduce that model not just for a city and region and country, but on a continental scale.

The EIT’s ambition is high and the task it faces isn’t easy: Europe is a union of 28 countries; these countries collaborate successfully in some areas but not in others. The European project is highly successful in that it has created a common market of 500 million people, and its member states do not go to war against each other. But it still has some distance to go to get people, and universities, to think not just regionally and nationally, but continentally and internationally.

Currently, innovation in Europe isn’t the flourishing ecosystem that it has the potential to be – it’s a series of microcosms, some flourishing locally, others not. The EIT has set out to change this through strategizing, planning and taking action.  So I’ve every expectation that the EIT will succeed in its ambition, particularly because the ambition ties into the founding principles of the European Union. The European Union was founded to boost European competitiveness, certainly, but more than that it was created to bind together the countries of Europe for their mutual economic and social benefit, and so the horrors of history were not repeated.

The EIT’s part in this is aimed at boosting innovation and entrepreneurship, but it’s also about enabling and advancing a spirit of openness, trust, curiosity and interest – the European spirit, which is also the global spirit.

The founding architects of the EU realised that there was no reason why products created in Holland should not also sell, without import duty, in the south of France, and no reason why a Belgian should not work in Italy with all the rights of an Italian citizen. We are now finding new ways to extend the thinking to ideas in education and research, although the forces that would relocate that to the nation states, and even within them to regions, or cities, or parts of cities, are still forceful. Nonetheless we are already at the stage, where a research project, started in Ireland, can gain academic collaborators in Britain, and investment in France, and business partners in Germany – we just want to speed up, facilitate, and normalise, and internationalise this process.

Thank you very much.

*  *  *

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