Vanhanen calls for rethink on EU innovation policy

13 Nov 2006

BRUSSELS: Matti Vanhanen, the Finnish Prime Minister, has called for a rethink of European policy in order to foster greater innovation and closer ties between industry and third-level institutions.

Finland currently holds the Presidency of the European Union and Vanhanen said that innovation was a “major priority” during the term. “Europe needs innovation to stay competitive and I think we need to take a hard look at European innovation policy. We need to do more and get better results.”

Vanhanen, who was addressing an audience of MEPs, policy makers, academics and media at the opening of the third annual Innovation Day in Brussels, stated: “Europe needs a more efficient and Europe-wide policy on intellectual property rights,” he said. Acknowledging that no agreement has been reached on the community patent, he said that one possibility could be to adopt the London Protocol which he said would simplify patent procedures. “We also need to improve the litigation system by developing the European Patent Litigation Agreement.”

Europe continues to invest substantially in education and research and development (R&D) spend is rising but paradoxically this doesn’t translate into successful companies, new products or jobs, Vanhanen said. He called for a more “company-driven” innovation policy with fewer barriers. “This includes issues that have nothing to do with science and technology: issues such as taxation, bankruptcy legislation and risk capital,” he said.

Vanhahen pointed out that despite the EU’s stated ambition to be the most competitive region in the world by 2010, currently only three of the top 10 companies for R&D spend come from Europe and just 17 out of the top 50.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who delivered the keynote address at the event, spoke of the importance of third-level institutions in helping innovation. “We believe very strongly that universities have a role to play. If we look at why the US has been able to contribute in information technology and in biology in a very strong fashion, it’s the strength of the universities that have been key to that,” he said.

Gates made the point that in the US, the location of new companies is more closely correlated to university campuses than to large population centres. He added that his initial fear in setting up Microsoft’s research arm 15 years ago was that there could be a clash of ideas between the software firm’s staff and academics, although he said that these worries proved unfounded. Now Microsoft has projects involving “dozens” of universities around Europe. One of its four major pure research centres is located on campus at Cambridge University, which, Gates remarked, is “physical evidence of the close co-operation.”

Interestingly, the software boss didn’t pander to the narrow views of the global competitive market. “When we think of Asia coming into the mix, overwhelmingly that’s a good thing,” he said. “It means there’s more smart people every day thinking about how to make reliable products or better medicines.”

By Gordon Smith