NEXT IS NOW! The outcomes of the project final conference

The final conference of the project NEXT took place in Ancona on 10th  July 2015 at the Port Authority premises, with an attendance of more than 60 delegates from NEXT partners countries and the participation of local policy makers and innovation actors. The welcome message has been given by Mr Gianluca Busilacchi, Councilor of the Legislative Assembly of Marche Region, who stressed the relevance of NEXT and the services provided in the framework of the Adriatic Ionian Macro Region Strategy. NEXT activities have increased the capacity of local SMEs in accessing EU financing opportunities and in developing knowledge and skills for better approaching the private equity market. All of this positively impacting on the  public/private funds absorption capacity of the Marche Region territory. The President of the Regional Council of Shkodra, Mr Maxhid Cungu, shed some light on the importance of NEXT for countries accessing the EU, also as a mean to support the setting up of national and macro regional relation as foreseen by the 3rd Axis of the Albanian Innovation Strategy. Mr Rolando Amici, Director of the the SMEs financing department of Marche Region stated that the Macro Region is to be understood as an innovative concept of territorial cooperation. The project NEXT has provided and still provides the primary tools for moving strategy into action and for coordinating innovation policies at Macro regional level, overcoming fragmentation. Next IS platform might be the mean for developing a synergic and coordinated governance of the innovation process in the macro region. Anna Torelli, project manager of NEXT for Marche Region, Department for Productive Activities, Research and Innovation, lead partner of the project,  gave an helicopter view of the services provided by project the results achieved, as well as lessons learnt and  challenges faced and from project implementation. Anna Torelli recalled the NEXT main objective was to address the innovation and internationalization needs of the regional companies by:
  • the promotion, widening and consolidation of the cooperation between Universities, Companies, Researchers, Local Government;
  • the piloting of innovative mechanisms to support joint research, technology transfer and business development in the Adriatic-Ionian area.
  For pursuing its goal, the project put in network: 839 innovation actors, including SMEs and RTTCs, 109 of which currently active at Adriatic – Ionian area level 814 projects, 32 of which are implemented in the Adriatic – Ionian area, 17 private investors, willing to invest in start -ups and innovation projects in the Adriatic- Ionian area, and provided a set of services and tools for improving the R&D capacity and internationalization rate of SMEs and RTTCs located in the Adriatic basin, as:   NEXT IS,, a collaborative on-line platform supporting the identification of  research partners, patents, R&D projects, investors and other information useful to:
  • Analyse business opportunities in the Adriatic Ionian area (NEXT Outlooks and Trends)
  • Get in contact with actors, who can sustain innovation and internationalization processes in partner countries (NEXT Open book)
  • Be informed about financing opportunities supporting R&D projects and business development in the Adriatic Ionian area (NEXT Blog).
NEXT Box, a set of guidance and tutoring services targeting SMEs willing to apply for grants in the framework of EU programmes for basic and applied research projects, including the organization of a match-making event to connect with potential partners. The services provided includes:
  • NEXT Info Point, a window providing information on the financing opportunities through EU programmes and on services provided by the project NEXT.
  • NEXT Info Desk Europe, a desk carrying out preliminary assessment of project ideas developed to fit into European Programmes, like Horizon 2020 and COSME as well as counselling.
NEXT Investment Booster, a set of guidance and tutoring services for the identification and access to risk capital, targeting high growth potential start-ups. Among the tutoring services the project offered the NEXT Pitch Elevator, a self-assessment tool and a capacity building program for evaluating the market potential and attractiveness of proposed business ideas and learning how to better present them to private investors. Other events/activities and ad hoc support provided by project partners, such us Business plan  competitions, and specialized consulting services for R&I.   Looking back at the past 3 years’ experience, Anna Torelli pointed out some main challenges and lessons learned from project implementation, as follows:  
  • To secure an active participation of companies and innovation actors, feeding the online platform with opportunities is crucial. In this sense and looking at future developments, a stronger contribution from local “newsrooms” able to spot and advertise into the platform regional opportunities should be envisaged;
  • To facilitate the “virtual transition” and engaging the target groups in online collaboration, the face to face events organized during the project has been very important;
  • Although Marche region experienced some problems in launching the first pilot with NEXT IS, is clear that the digital divide is still affecting Italian SMEs, hampering their capacity to fully exploit the opportunities offered by the platform.
  • To support promising companies and startups in accessing financing opportunities, particularly, those offered by the risk capital market, a stronger on site assistance for developing their Investment readiness would be needed.
Anna Torelli, ended her presentation by launching some open questions to be addressed by the panel and roundtable discussion following her talk, related to both the future sustainability and exploitation mechanisms  of NEXT IS in the framework of the macro-region strategy. The scope of the following panel discussion “Open Innovation, Technology Platforms and Governance models” was to analyze and debate other regional experiences of managing innovation process making use of technological platforms and, through this, derive some recommendations for exploiting NEXT IS as a tool for the governance of the Adriatic-Ionian Macro-region innovation strategy. The panel was opened by Prof. Sauro Longhi, Dean of Università Politecnica delle Marche. He welcomed the NEXT project as  an important tool for internationalization and for bringing technology transfer beyond the more traditional paradigm of  “regional district”. Regional competitiveness is more and more based on a national / Macro regional perspective, in terms of both R&I and market development. The chair of the panel, Prof.  Donato Iacobucci, responsible for innovation and technology transfer in Università Politecnica delle Marche, introduced the panel discussion by presenting three key assumptions underpinning the design of the NEXT project,:
  1. innovation is a key factor for SMEs competitiveness and growth
  2. SMEs need to switch from a learning by doing model to a Science and Technology Innovation model, based on a systematic application of scientific knowledge to product design and production processes. This transition brings two main consequences: a) differently from the traditional model, the new model requires a stronger interaction between industry, academy and government (Triple Helix model) and b) it is essential for firms, research centres and policy makers to know which kind of research and technological competences are available within the region;
  3. This is where ICT (Information and Communication Technology) enters the scene. ICT offers us great opportunities to support the new model, by providing means to represent the research and technological competences of firms and universities and by providing tools to facilitate the matching between supply and demand of technological knowledge. Although the opportunities are huge they are not easy to implement. There are technological but also cultural, organizational and governance problems.
NEXT IS might facilitate this transition but it is challenged by several environmental factors, related to the very different innovation profiles of the region/countries in the macro-region; and technological and organizational ones, related to the way to design,  set up and manage a tool supposed to coordinate fragmented innovation policies systems. Discussing these opportunities and challenges was the object of the panel. Mr Dragan Kazazic, Deputy of Head of Department for Development of the Herzegovina- Neretva Canton Ministry, BiH and Mrs Miona Popovic Majkic, Head of Group for Planning of IPA projects at Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Serbia, illustrated opportunities for change and innovation strategy of their respective countries. Federico Rappelli, Eupolis, Lombardy Region, Italy illustrated the experience of Lombardy region in the design and implementation of their regional technology platform, Questio, listing the main lessons learned from this experience as recommendation for future development of the NEXT project. According to his view, the crucial points for the functioning of the system are:
  • The level of integration of the IT platform with the regional eco-system: the higher the interconnection of the platform with the regional innovation players and with the regional innovation assets the better for the actual functioning of the service;
  • To lower complexity and to secure coordination, the option of federating with other existing  regional, national and international platforms might be envisaged in order to exchange data and to share information on opportunities, policies and impacts. This will allow to scale up the platform potential and reach whilst preserving its regional profile.
  • To work on human resources development for enabling a full usage of the ICT tool and for driving a cultural change among the triple actors towards a more entrepreneurial innovation culture.
The case of Mr Sandro Bertini, from the company PLADOS S.p.A., Italy confirmed the importance of a continuous dialogue and interaction with the triple helix actors, as well as the importance of thinking globally and acting  locally. Setting up  R&D cooperation and productive sites in other countries, liaising with local innovation ecosystems and local universities, has been a key element of the company success. The panel was followed by a Q&A session with the attendees and Prof. Iacobucci summed up the discussion outcomes by stressing the importance of developing a more entrepreneurial innovation culture, able to look beyond regional boarders, and at the same time the proper tool to facilitate cooperation in the macro-region. National and local governments are more and more committed to support technology transfer and innovation in their regions and they recognize that the regional dimension (though important) is not sufficient. It is becoming crucial  to promote exchanges, not only of good and services, but also of knowledge, of scientific and technological competences. NEXT IS might be the right mean assuming that companies will accept the challenge to move from a learning by doing innovation model to a more structured and complex process based on the interaction and cooperation with the Academia and the Governmental institutions.   The round table “Smart specialization and the Adriatic-Ionian Macro-region –  from strategy to action” – , held in the afternoon,  had the mission to verify if opportunities  and tools built within the NEXT project could be further exploited in the future by means of regional/national/European funding. Antonio Santangelo, Archidata, introduced the discussion presenting the identified common strategic areas of development as arising from the benchmarking of  the  RIS 3 in Italy and other regional studies/strategies  in the partners countries. The most common and promising specialization areas are manufacturing (all countries involved, 14), energy and environment (9 territories), health and sustainable living (8 territories). The proposal is to use the NEXT IS platform to select calls from regions to start common projects; in the same time calls in Horizon 2020 can be the immediate field of collaboration through partners. The panelist were invited to contribute to the discussion identifying problems and opportunities:
  • how to use NEXT IS platform to support the goal to favour participation to EU Programmes?
  • which kind of services must be implemented in NEXT IS platforms to foster cooperation in the Macro Region?
  • which kind of actions must be done to strengthen the NEXT partnership?
Angela Pulvirenti, referring to SMEs participation to Horizon 2020 pointed out that business reacted with enthusiasm to the first calls. The Italian ones were in great number for application. Unfortunately not so good regarding the number of financed projects. There is still room for improvement and relationships built in the NEXT project can be useful. From Montenegro experience Radka Sekulovic stressed the relative weakness of the research and development of the Country and the fact that NEXT taught her a lot. Sekulovic is certain that from the continuation of the relations with partners Montenegro can rapidly raise its innovation profile. Shkelzen Marku briefly presented the policy on innovation in Albania, noting the potentiality of partnership especially with Italy. Marku also urged the partners to use the platform, transforming it from a prototype to a business tool. Finally Letizia Urbani was asked to suggest needs and services for the prosecution of the project. Starting from the experience of Meccano research center, Urbani suggested two immediate services: a task force of experts to support SMEs and startups; counseling and accompanying business to the participation to European calls. Looking to the future, Urbani hoped that in the frame of the Macro Region the platform could become an operational interface towards European Union, promoting a Quality Mark “Made in MACRO A/I” for standard harmonization, and starting a Macro region multilateral fund.   TA team

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