CATALAN ECONOMY

TECNIOspring PLUS final results: Driving technology transfer in Catalonia

07.04.2022

tecniospring-article-web

Bolstered by a mature research ecosystem in Catalonia, TECNIOspring PLUS provided a means for talented researchers to develop applied research projects, nurturing innovation for industries. The project has been a catalyst for technology transfer and for building careers in R&D.

Catalonia is the backdrop to one of Europe’s most thriving start-up ecosystems, with more than 1,900 start-ups. Catalonia has been developing connections, networks and funnels for researchers and their projects to feed directly into industry. The Return on Investment (RoI) in developing careers, innovations and creating priceless far-reaching professional relationships has been and continues to be, substantial.

The TECNIOspring PLUS programme has received funding under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant, from the European Research and Innovation program Horizon 2020, funding agreement No 712949. It funds innovation hubs for applied sciences, called TECNIO Centres, as well as technology and companies.

TECNIOspring is an evolving programme. The initial TECNIOspring project was followed first by TECNIOspring PLUS and then, by Tecniospring INDUSTRY. The thread through them all is in facilitating ambitious talent in applied research over two-year contractual periods for senior researchers. Advanced training in technology transfer is identified through TECNIOspring as the key to pushing Research and Development (R&D) milestones into scalable market-driven innovations.

The scheme provides up to 100% of financial support for researchers undertaking applied research projects, offering them close support with training, outreach and networking. This programme has been co-financed by the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and ACCIÓ, the latter acting as managing beneficiary. ACCIÓ is the Agency for Competitiveness from the Government of Catalonia, and its different programmes promote internationalisation and innovation to Catalan companies.

Since the inception of the programme, companies have increasingly embraced the opportunities made accessible for R&D. In the first call of TECNIOspring PLUS, the number of companies awarded with the grant was just 2 out of the 17 selected projects. In contrast, by the third and last call of the programme, there were 9 out of 32.

In the programme that followed, called Tecniospring INDUSTRY, the number of companies increased to 27 out of 67. Over recent years, the TECNIOspring concept has become a proven entity for supporting businesses and organisations, with talented researchers placed into an increasing number of companies that are directly benefiting in terms of product development, as a result.

Encouragingly, an increasing number of companies has fully realised the benefits of the initiative, as there was little to lose and everything to gain from the proposal. TECNIOspring PLUS has awarded 66 fellowships for the 2016-2022 period with some fascinating innovation projects and impressive outcomes.

Matching researchers to companies

The ongoing challenge that the project sought to address was supporting R & D professionals in finding the best routes to market. With 11,044,000 € of financial support made available for hiring experienced researchers and paying their initial salaries in applied science posts, relevant ‘good-match’ researchers became an attractive asset, through the project, for Catalonia industries.

Making a perfect match between an applicant and a company required a high degree of scrutiny at the early stages. However, when a relevant match was identified, the results have often been far-reaching in terms of success both for the researchers, who on occasions became employed on a permanent basis at the company, and the businesses, which benefited from the expertise and input into developing attractive innovations.

Joint proposals submitted by aligned researchers and companies became funded projects in sectors such as Healthcare, Biotech, Food Industries and Energy to name a few. There was a scientific evaluation of each project and also a technology transfer assessment, paying attention to the impact on the wider market.

A highlight of the TECNIOspring programme has been that it allows for close collaboration with other international universities and companies in a well-developed research ecosystem. This is good not only for the notoriety and career of the researcher but also for the centre or company involved.

Since companies and centres are based in Catalonia there is a much broader positive impact internationally. Most researchers involved have a wide range of nationalities, for example, two thirds of TECNIOspring PLUS researchers are international, while only one third is Spanish. The amount of international talent maintained with the following Tecniospring INDUSTRY programme (63% international researchers versus 37% Spanish researchers).

Collaborations that count

Beyond the boost for employment, as a result of TECNIOspring PLUS there have been 14 patent applications submitted, 21 prototypes and 3 spin-offs created, and a vast number of collaborations carried out with some of the world’s leading institutions and companies.

A highlight of the TECNIOspring programme has been that it allows for close collaboration with other international universities and companies in a well-developed research ecosystem. This is good not only for the notoriety and career of the researcher but also for the centre or company involved.

Here is a selection of some major examples of progressive research undertaken with support from TECNIOspring PLUS.

In the framework of the TECNIOspring PLUS programme, Sadegh Astaneh, a PhD in Information and Communications Technologies, developed a monitoring system based on Big Data to optimise the use of water and fertiliser in agriculture, working with Barcelona based company ModpoW AgriTechnologies.

The so-called MATAI solution monitors liquid data underground to give the farmer recommendations for watering in real-time, for each area. This saves up to 30% of water consumption and fertiliser annually.

The CEO of the company, Jordi Barcelo explained, “with this system we put our eyes under the ground and inform the farmer of everything that happens and that he cannot see with the naked eye – to save large quantities of water and fertiliser, as we have found that many growers over-water and end up damaging the crop.” This provides a great benefit for the fruit and vegetable sector.

Researcher, Daniel Esteban Ferrer, supported by the company Visyon, developed a software that uses virtual reality to visualise medical tests in 3D – to help healthcare professionals detect changes in cellular structures that may otherwise be unnoticed and lead to conditions like cancer. After the project, Daniel Esteban created a start-up ViReInstruments, which is now enrolling new research capabilities through the Tecniospring INDUSTRY programme.

Gerard Cortina pioneered smart parasols at the IASO company in Lleida. The solar panels, enabling the parasols to efficiently and cost-effectively provide light outside at night, an innovation that benefits the hospitality industry with a significant energy cost saving.

The parasols incorporated high efficiency single-crystal photovoltaic cells and light supporting materials to bring down the weight of the panel. The solar radiation is stored in a battery which has enough energy for five hours of luminosity.

“The aim of the project,” explained Gerard, “Is to combine a solar protection element and then harness the energy from which we are protecting ourselves, to use if for lighting during the night, exploiting the functionalities of the two existing products and combining them to create sunlight.”

The autonomous lighting has widescale application and is a significant achievement for innovation in renewables. A knock-on effect for this innovation was that companies noticed the parasols were ideal for highlighting their brands and sought advertising space on them, adding another financial benefit for the sector.

There are so many examples of impressive work, including tackling a children’s disease, wearable technology to track glucose through sweat, animal nutrition advancements for farms and a new system for the detection of toxic algae. Such innovations drive big returns, societal changes and industrial transformations.

The collaborations generated through the network can be hugely beneficial for many reasons. The researchers can accumulate a wealth of experience from working at the business end of applied research, together with access to training and stewardship from a range of business and academic mentors, sector experts and key people from ACCIÓ.

The international and intersectoral opportunities, developed over time have become invaluable and there is the tight-knit relationship forged from the programme, between fellows and companies working on R & D. With the generous financing from the project toward salaries for researchers pioneering to new heights in applied fields, it’s a win-win for both industry and academia.

Progressing careers and applied science

The feedback from those working with industry within the programme illustrated that being integrated reports benefits both to research and personal careers.

Researchers involved in TECNIOspring PLUS reported more than 50 Open Access accepted papers, together with 94 oral presentations in congresses, symposia and events.

From 2016-2021, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a 75% increase in the number of start-ups only in Barcelona. Catalonia is going from strength to strength with R&D, innovation and applied sciences and this is in part due to a culture that has a strong collaboration between the EU, ACCIÓ, academia and the private sector. What is demonstrated through TECNIOspring PLUS is that being closer to industry, making R&D financing viable for startups and companies of every shape and size, means Europe can accelerate innovation and build highly successful careers around applied research.

Article published by EU Research. Read the full article below: