The Research and Innovation Foundation (RIF) has been going for 24 years now but, it was widely ignored because nobody was interested in technology and innovation. Now, with a Deputy Ministry for Research, Innovation and Digital Policy, leading the way, the RIF will have a bigger role to play.
When it was set in 1996, as a private, non-profit organisation it was responsible for stimulating and facilitating technological studies, research and innovation on the island an it has participated in a number of big international programmes such as CERN, EURAXESS, and ERANET.
RIF has been expanded and restructured twice: in 2007, its scope was expanded to encompass the support of innovation in Cyprus, and in 2018, its renaming to its current title coincided with assuming the role of the Research, Technological Development and Innovation System’s executive branch.
To establish what RIF does and how it is promoting research and innovation, Kyriacos Nicolaou put some questions to Dr Nikolaos Mastroyiannopoulos, Chief Scientist for Research and Innovation of the Republic and to Theodoros Loukaidis, the Director-General of RIF. Both answered our questions:
Over the past few years, research and innovation have been increasingly recognised for their importance as key drivers of the economy than ever before. How do you envision the future of the country’s R&I ecosystem?
Theodoros Loukaidis: Cyprus’ Research and Innovation sector has witnessed a rapid evolution over the last few years. The reform of the national governance system for R&I as well as the recent establishment of the Deputy Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digital Policy reflect the strong commitment to establish R&I as a fundamental pillar of a new model for growth, capable of expanding the productive base of the Cyprus economy. Through collaborative working, our aim is to bring the ecosystem closer together and amplify its potential to produce world class research and innovation that results in tangible benefit for the national economy and the society. It is in fact RIF’s mission to develop the necessary conditions that allow R&I to flourish in our country.
Nikolaos Mastroyiannopoulos: In order to confront the rapidly-evolving world around us, we need to have an R&I ecosystem highly adaptable to transformation that functions in a multidisciplinary environment. Moving towards this direction, I believe is vital to establish a triple helix model of innovation interconnecting academia, industry and government. This triple helix model is based on the interactions between the three acknowledging their distinguished functions. As interactions increase within this framework, each component evolves to adopt some characteristics of the other which then gives rise to a hybrid system, in other words, a viable and sustainable R&I ecosystem. Furthermore, by supporting basic research and applied sciences we create the stepping stone for future innovations. It is a key success factor to expand knowledge, conquer new frontiers leading to discoveries, disruptive technologies and creating a strong and sustainable research base. At the same time, it is crucial to strengthen extroversion of our national innovation system through strategic partnerships and collaborations that will broaden the cooperation networks for the benefit of our scientists and entrepreneurs. The synergy between scientific research and industry is fundamental for the creation of a productive R&I environment with multiple benefits for the economy and the society in general.
To what extent has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the R&I sector in Cyprus?
TL: The COVID-19pandemic has changed our lives and made us reconsider our priorities. The need to understand the current situation and seek solutions on how the world can deal with the potential consequences, has brought R&I into the spotlight while it has significantly accelerated digital transformation across several areas of society and business. As an organisation we responded swiftly, and among the measures we have undertaken was to launch a series of Calls specifically targeting the pandemic and the conditions created due to it. In fact, three distinct projects were announced for which the results will be out soon. These include “Proof of Concept for Technology/Know-how Applications”, with a budget of €564,331, “Development of Internationally Competitive Innovative Products and Services by Start-ups-SEED-COVID” and “Internationally Competitive Innovative Products and Services by Existing Enterprises – INNOVATE-COVID”, both with a budget of €1,000,000. Our main goal was to provide our country’s ecosystem with all the tools and support needed to come up with solutions that may relate to the prevention, diagnosis, treatment or management of social and economic repercussions.
NM: The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need to strengthen national and international cooperation between scientists, decision makers, entrepreneurs and professionals from a wide range of sectors, more than ever. Given that the battle against coronavirus calls for a multi-dimensional solution, networking and cooperating is rendered more critical than ever. We do not perceive the current conditions as obstacles for growth but rather as an opportunity towards innovation which eventually will turn the current challenges into new, measurable and useful human evolving products . To this end, open access to scientific knowledge, know-how and data-sharing is required. I am glad to say that significant steps have been taken in a very short time to facilitate this on a national, European and international level.
What actions is the RIF taking in order to support the local ecosystem and its stakeholders?
NM: The team of RIF works closely with the Government and all stakeholders involved, enabling and augmenting an efficient and well-performing ecosystem, fit for the future, and adding value across all sectors of the economy. Through a wide portfolio of innovative actions and programmes, as well as by offering a comprehensive range of services, RIF’s mission is to support the ecosystem, so it can grow even further and be a pillar of sustainable development. Today, under its extended role as the executive arm of the Deputy Ministry for Research, Innovation and Digital Policy, RIF has an even more important role to play in delivering the national strategy for R&I.
TL: Since its establishment, the Foundation has developed widespread activities at national, European and international level towards the multidimensional support of the local ecosystem. One of the most important activities of the RIF is the development, launch and monitoring of R&I Funding Programmes. At the moment, we are implementing the multiannual framework of Programmes “RESTART 2016-2020”, with a total budget of approximately €100 million. RIF is also responsible for the coordination of the activities for the participation of Cyprus in the HORIZON 2020, the biggest EU research and innovation programme, with nearly €80 billion. In fact, we actively support Cypriot organisations in their efforts to successfully participate in EU R&I programmes, whilst providing substantial information and advice to the local ecosystem in matters such as finding partners and communicating with European Commission. Furthermore, we provide, among other, a wide range of services that strengthen international linkages for our R&I community and enhance mobility of researchers between research centres and enterprises as well as implementing activities that focus on the development of R&I culture and the nurturing of new talents. RIF is also providing knowledge transfer support services as well as offering specialized know-how with regards to the effective management of intellectual property.
Although Cyprus has highly qualified human resources that possess skills and expertise in a wide range of industries, it still has not managed to develop an advanced innovative start-up ecosystem. What steps will you take in this direction?
NM: Creating a vibrant community of start-ups is a priority. To achieve this, providing programmes and incentives specially-designed to respond to the needs of early stage entrepreneurship, is essential. Cyprus has indeed high-quality human capital and world-class academic and research centres, however, we still need to embrace creativity in order to fuel cutting-edge ideas and build a culture of innovation. Adopting and expanding an entrepreneurial mindset is crucial in converting the best ideas and the most promising research results into innovative products, services and technologies. Nevertheless, in order to create a functional innovation ecosystem, close collaboration between the public and private sector is fundamental. And that’s where we focus our efforts.
TL: Connecting the talent in research organizations with our businesses and supporting them find the right ways to commercialise novel solutions is of strategic importance to us. To support that, RIF set up the Knowledge Transfer Office. Furthermore, we are setting up the Innovation Factory to offer mentoring, coaching and assessment services as well as enable networking with investors. We also pay particular attention to the potential contribution of the Cypriot Diaspora. We actively seek to develop a multilevel bilateral cooperation with expatriate researchers and entrepreneurs, in order to facilitate international networking for our ecosystem and improve the international outlook of innovative products and services produced in Cyprus. One of our core activities is to keep a record of expatriate Cypriot researchers on a central database, with the purpose of keeping them informed about R&I activities in Cyprus, updating them with available networking and financing opportunities and encouraging the development of new partnerships. Also, we continuously strengthen our cooperation with countries that have advanced innovation ecosystems, such as Israel, which is known as the “Startup Nation”, in order to encourage joint projects and the exchange of knowledge.
How can the RIF bring researchers and the private sector closer, in order to create strong synergies? What actions will you take?
NM: There are already communication channels in our ecosystem however, in order to create strong synergies, we first need to strengthen the ties between researchers and the private sector. Also, we must examine how we can create suitable conditions for investments, aiming to further develop R&I activities. We are actively encouraging collaboration between researchers and enterprises and we will continue to do so. As a matter of fact, we are currently looking at identifying more ways to facilitate it.
TL: I mentioned earlier the Knowledge Transfer Office, which will operate as a central hub linking industry with research organizations and support high-level knowledge transfer activities. such as patent protection and licensing. We will be coming out with more on that in the coming weeks.
Europe’s largest research and innovation programme, “Horizon 2020”, will soon be completed. Is Cyprus’ participation considered successful?
TL: According to the latest EU data for “HORIZON 2020”, Cyprus ranks first among the EU member states in relation to the per capita absorption of funds from the Programme. In fact, more than €245 million have so far been absorbed by members of the Cypriot academic, research and business community. In particular, since the beginning of the Programme in 2014, a total of 5,059 Cypriot applications have been submitted. Of those, 3,876 were eligible and 541 were approved for funding. Hence, we can say that the results so far for Cyprus’ participation are considered encouraging, while especially remarkable is the fact that the participation of Cypriot companies is significantly higher compared to the total participation of companies in the Programme. Of course, there is considerable room for improvement, especially in the participation of Cypriot Organisations in more competitive consortia. Now our attention has turned to the next funding programme of the EU, “Horizon Europe”, which will run from 2021-2027. With a budget of €105.7 billion, Horizon Europe is considered by the European Commission as the most ambitious R&I programme ever, and one that will keep the EU at the forefront of global research and innovation.