Drivers of institutional change: the INNOUNITA project

Interview with Alexandra Petcu, INNOUNITA project

We had the privilege of sitting down with Alexandra Petcu, Head of Innovation & Technology Transfer at the West University of Timisoara, to delve into the transformative journey of the INNOUNITA project, its accomplishments, and the profound impact it has had on fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Could you tell us about yourself and the INNOUNITA project?

I am Alexandra Petcu, currently working as the Head of Innovation & Technology Transfer at the West University of Timisoara. In the course of my responsibilities, I had the honour of spearheading our university’s participation in the INNOUNITA project – a transformative initiative nested within the broader framework of the UNITA – Universitas Montium, a European University Alliance launched in 2021. This collaborative effort brought together universities from romance language-speaking countries, uniting esteemed institutions from France, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Spain.

Our initial involvement in the European Universities Initiative project paved the way for the integration and alignment of internal processes related to education and research within our academic institutions. However, it became apparent that to further the growth of our alliance, a dedicated focus on innovation and entrepreneurship was essential. INNOUNITA emerged organically as a response to this need, with a mission to facilitate capacity building, foster the exchange of best practices, and propel the harmonisation, integration, and scaling up of innovative approaches within the broader UNITA context.

The overarching goal of INNOUNITA was to advocate and support entrepreneurship education for both students and staff members, simultaneously catalysing innovation stemming from robust research and development initiatives. A crucial emphasis of the project lay in nurturing the creation of viable business ventures, thereby cultivating an ecosystem that places entrepreneurship and innovation at its core.

As the INNOUNITA project concluded in 2023, what standout achievements have marked its two-year implementation?

As I look back on the culmination of the INNOUNITA project after two transformative years, its impact resonates across the landscape of entrepreneurship, innovation, and education within UNITA and, more specifically, at the West University of Timisoara.

At the UNITA level, the project triggered a pivotal shift in fostering entrepreneurship education. Initiatives like the tailored autumn entrepreneurship school for researchers and the establishment of a network uniting UNITA members’ Technology Transfer Offices have played instrumental roles in fostering cross-institutional collaboration. The ongoing dedication to innovation and entrepreneurship, evident in dedicated work packages within the extended UNITA project launched in November 2023, ensures the enduring legacy of INNOUNITA.

A standout accomplishment is the creation of INNOUNITA’s digital entrepreneurship ecosystem, fostering heightened collaboration among stakeholders across our universities. This ecosystem has acted as a catalyst for innovative partnerships and synergies.

Noteworthy success at the West University of Timisoara includes the seamless integration of entrepreneurship education into the curricula of all 11 faculties. This integration spans diverse fields, impacting over 1500 students annually since the 2022/2023 academic year, cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset across disciplines.

A cornerstone achievement is the establishment of the Technology Transfer and Innovation Centre within West University of Timisoara in 2021/2022. This centre has instituted robust internal mechanisms for managing intellectual property rights, facilitating their valorisation, licensing agreements, and effective know-how transfer across regional, national, and European stakeholders.

Open innovation has become intrinsic to both internal and external research-development-and-innovation processes at the West University of Timisoara. This approach has not only elevated numerous living lab initiatives but has also led to the evolution of the UVT Digital & Green Living Lab. This entity, now an active member of the European Network of Living Labs, also plays a pivotal role in orchestrating the regional innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in the West region of Romania.

Collectively, these achievements symbolise the profound impact of the INNOUNITA project, transcending our university to influence the broader framework of UNITA, fostering a culture marked by innovation, entrepreneurship, and collaboration.

How has INNOUNITA contributed to positive institutional transformation at West University of Timisoara?

The INNOUNITA project has been a cornerstone in driving positive institutional change at the West University of Timisoara (UVT), extending its influence beyond the explicit accomplishments previously outlined. The carefully assembled UVT team within INNOUNITA strategically encompassed key academic and administrative departments, laying the foundation for a holistic institutional transformation in entrepreneurship and innovation.

The impact of INNOUNITA went beyond tangible achievements, fostering an integrative approach to entrepreneurship and innovation across diverse sectors. This encompassed areas such as career counselling, academic strategy development, teaching methodologies, resource allocation for research and development, streamlined technology transfer processes, partnership management, territorial impact assessment, infrastructure management for research and innovation, and facilitation of mentorship, counselling, and consultancy for knowledge transfer and business incubation.

In the realm of career counselling and orientation, INNOUNITA brought about a paradigm shift, aligning these practices more closely with entrepreneurial opportunities. This ensured that students were not only guided academically but also equipped with the skills and mindset necessary for entrepreneurial endeavours.

The influence of INNOUNITA was evident in the enhancement of quality management practices within the academic strategy. The project prompted a strategic re-evaluation, emphasising the infusion of entrepreneurial elements into academic programmes and initiatives.

Catalysing a more efficient allocation of resources toward research and development initiatives, INNOUNITA emphasised innovation-driven endeavours that held potential for commercialisation and societal impact.

Streamlining technology transfer processes, INNOUNITA optimised the conversion of intellectual property into tangible innovations, facilitating their seamless transition into the market.

Bolstering partnership management efforts, the project fostered collaborations that extended the university’s territorial impact, amplifying its role as a driver of regional innovation.

The project’s influence was palpable in the provision of comprehensive support services, including mentorship, counselling, and consultancy. These initiatives fostered an environment conducive to knowledge transfer and business incubation.

These multi-faceted transformations underscore the depth and breadth of INNOUNITA’s impact, reflecting a fundamental shift towards embedding entrepreneurship and innovation across the institutional fabric of the West University of Timisoara.

What key lessons did you learn from institutionalising the project activities and outcomes?

Reflecting on our endeavours to institutionalise project activities and outcomes within the INNOUNITA initiative has been an enlightening journey, providing invaluable insights that have profoundly influenced our approach to fostering innovation and entrepreneurship within Higher Education Institutions in the UNITA alliance.

Our experience has highlighted several key lessons:

Collaborative efforts across multiple universities, as exemplified in our UNITA alliance, have proven instrumental in amplifying the impact of innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives. The synergy derived from diverse expertise and perspectives has been pivotal in shaping comprehensive and impactful programmes.

Our journey underscores the significance of open innovation, emphasising that innovation should be accessible to all, particularly in addressing social and societal challenges. INNOUNITA showcased the transformative power of open innovation, demonstrating its ability to address pressing societal issues by leveraging collective intelligence and diverse insights.

Capacity-building projects serve as catalysts for systemic innovation within administrative and academic processes in higher education institutions. These initiatives are pivotal in not only fostering individual skills but also in reshaping the very frameworks and structures within academic institutions. INNOUNITA’s emphasis on capacity building underscored its potential to drive substantive change beyond mere skill enhancement.

Projects like INNOUNITA play a pivotal role in ensuring coherence across various research and innovation (R&I) activities. While niche R&I endeavours are vital, overarching initiatives that integrate and align these specialised projects are equally paramount. INNOUNITA’s role in harmonising diverse R&I pursuits underscored the significance of creating a cohesive ecosystem wherein each specialised endeavour contributes to a larger, synergistic framework.

These lessons have been pivotal in shaping our approach, not only within INNOUNITA but also in guiding our future endeavours. The emphasis on collaboration, inclusivity, capacity building, and coherence across initiatives forms the cornerstone of our institutional strategy towards fostering innovation and entrepreneurship within higher education institutions.

What were the internal and external factors contributing to institutional change at West University of Timisoara and partner universities?

The witnessed institutional change at our university and partner institutions resulted from a confluence of internal and external factors, each playing a pivotal role in shaping the transformative landscape of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Internal factors:

Internally, a key driving force was the strategic integration of academic and administrative departments. This cohesive approach, exemplified by the carefully selected UVT team within INNOUNITA, facilitated a unified vision and concerted effort towards fostering innovation and entrepreneurship across diverse university sectors.

The integration of entrepreneurship education within the curricula of all faculties at the West University of Timisoara was a significant catalyst. This strategic revision ensured that entrepreneurship became ingrained in the educational journey of students across various disciplines, fostering an entrepreneurial mindset from the outset.

The establishment of the Technology Transfer and Innovation Centre within UVT and similar infrastructural enhancements at partner universities represented a pivotal internal factor. These specialised centres provided the necessary support and infrastructure for managing intellectual property, fostering innovation, and facilitating knowledge transfer.

External factors:

A primary external factor contributing to institutional change was the robust inter-institutional collaboration witnessed within the UNITA alliance. Collaborative efforts across universities allowed for the sharing of best practices, ideas, and resources, amplifying the impact of initiatives like the autumn entrepreneurship school and the creation of a network of Technology Transfer Offices.

External factors, such as EU funding and access to additional initiatives across the EIT community, including the extension of the UNITA project funded under the European Universities Initiative, played a crucial role. These external resources provided the impetus for sustained efforts in innovation and entrepreneurship, ensuring the continuity of projects like INNOUNITA and enabling long-term strategic planning.

The adoption of open innovation practices, not only internally but also across partner universities, emerged as a key external factor. This approach fostered collaboration, openness to diverse ideas, and a focus on addressing societal challenges collectively, thereby driving institutional change beyond individual university boundaries, aligning with the European University Association’s  vision for 2030 – Universities without walls.

These internal and external factors converged synergistically, catalysing a comprehensive institutional change. They underscored the importance of a holistic approach that integrates internal strategies with external collaborations and resources to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

How did the project activities contribute to the success of UNITA – Universitas Montium?

The project activities within INNOUNITA played a pivotal role in enhancing the success and impact of UNITA – Universitas Montium, fostering a collaborative environment that propelled the alliance towards an authentic open innovation ecosystem, impactful for urban and rural cross-border regions from the involved romance language-speaking countries.

INNOUNITA’s initiatives acted as catalysts for collaborative endeavours within the UNITA alliance. The shared vision and concerted efforts toward fostering entrepreneurship and innovation transcended individual university boundaries, fostering a cohesive ecosystem of collaboration among partners.

The project activities facilitated the exchange and sharing of best practices among alliance members. Initiatives like the autumn entrepreneurship school and the creation of a network of Technology Transfer Offices provided platforms for cross-pollination of ideas, enabling the dissemination of successful strategies and approaches across the alliance.

The project activities significantly amplified the territorial impact of the UNITA alliance. Through open innovation practices, partnership management strategies, and collaborative research, development, and innovation, the alliance’s influence extended beyond individual university realms, fostering regional innovation ecosystems and societal impact.

Furthermore, the successful outcomes and sustained efforts of INNOUNITA paved the way for securing extended EU funding for the UNITA alliance’s continued endeavours. This long-term sustainability ensured that the collaborative spirit and actions initiated through INNOUNITA would continue to thrive and evolve within the alliance framework.

Share your experience with the EIT HEI Initiative and inspire higher education institutions across Europe to boost their innovation and entrepreneurship capacity.

Published on: 5 February 2024