Drivers of institutional change: the RiEcoLab project

Interview with Tomasz Bartosz Kalinowski, RiEcoLab project

At the EIT HEI Initiative, we aim to bring about real institutional change within the universities involved in our projects. We spoke with Tomasz Bartosz Kalinowski, Coordinator of one of our Pilot Projects, RiEcoLab, to learn more about the impact of the project on the consortium.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and the EIT HEI Initiative project that you represent?

I am an associate professor at the Faculty of Management at the University of Lodz. I have over 20 years of experience in teaching and research. I am also the Head of Centre of Excellence in Research, KnowBase, at the University of Lodz and the Dean’s Plenipotentiary for Quality of Research at the faculty. My areas of interest include innovation management, technology transfer, sustainability, process management, organisational improvement and supply chain management. I have also been a project manager and researcher in more than 25 externally funded projects (Horizon 2020, Erasmus+, the Lifelong Learning Programme, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.).

RiEcoLab has a clear goal for 2030: to revolutionise how research and development are conducted in universities. The focus is on ensuring quick commercialisation (spin-offs) and engaging a broad range of internal stakeholders, including academic and non-academic staff and students.

The project brought together experienced institutions from western EU countries, such as the University College Dublin in Ireland and Wageningen Research in the Netherlands, with higher education institutions (HEIs) from Regional Innovation Scheme countries.

The leading partner is the University of Lodz in Poland, joined by the National University of Political Science and Public Administration in Romania and YASAR University in Türkiye. The HEIs collaborate with expertise from the European Business Angels Network in Belgium, the Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities in Germany and Helixconnect Europe in Romania.

With your project now finished, what have been its main achievements?

The RiEcoLab project has achieved a significant milestone by developing hybrid start-up support infrastructures called Ecosystem Integration Labs (EILs). The EILs were established in every HEI participating in the project, either physically or virtually.

As a result, every HEI now has permanent structures that cover EILs as a separate unit; improved and renewed Technology Transfer Offices; mandatory trainings for staff, students, and non-academic staff with regards to RiEcoLab’s toolkits; improved advisory boards that include public-private investors; and improved internal financing schemes for potential spin-offs.

One of the key objectives of the EIT HEI Initiative is to trigger positive institutional change in innovation and entrepreneurship. How has RiEcoLab contributed to positive transformation at your university and, more broadly, at the universities in your consortium?

The main change is that the participating HEIs, including my university, have re-defined their status by facilitating public-private investment to support impactful academic entrepreneurship. However, HEIs in Eastern Europe are still struggling to find funds for impactful (socially and environmentally) university spin-offs or scale-ups. Despite our in-house entrepreneurial capacity, the challenge lies in identifying the right public or private funding sources. This is hindered by a lack of skills to attract such partners and outdated internal processes that make it impossible to establish public-private intellectual property right (IPR) agreements.

After participating in the RiEcoLab training and mentoring sessions, the higher-level university management of RiEcoLab HEIs initiated an institutional transformation. This involved changing internal processes related to research design, development and commercialisation. The goal is to facilitate impactful public-private investment following a responsible research and innovation approach.

This transformation included issuing internal guidelines for research strategies, ethics, key performance indicators, IPR and commercialisation models. Additionally, mandatory training and certifications for both academic and non-academic staff were implemented. Finally, cross-departmental and cross-disciplinary boards were established to enhance collaboration.

What were the internal and external factors that contributed to institutional change in innovation and entrepreneurship at your university?

I would say the internal factors were:

  • becoming more entrepreneurial and digital;
  • improving institutional reputation, talent acquisition and staff satisfaction;
  • attracting more students to boost the employability of graduates;
  • diversifying income from IPR and commercialisation; and
  • attracting industries and external actors to use university labs.

As for the external factors, these included:

  • pressure from competitive HEIs, local/regional industries and the public sector;
  • international growing trends towards entrepreneurial, innovative, and civic HEIs;
  • demand from alumni for improved employability challenges; and
  • societal expectations for faster regional development.

Did the university top management play a role in institutionalising the project results?

The project was a collaborative effort between the rector, deans and higher management. We observed a significant shift in their mindset towards research commercialisation, which has led to increased openness and a willingness to change policies.

They are now committed to providing better support to institutionalise the Innovation Vision Action Plan. Higher management is actively seeking funding opportunities to scale up project activities and exploring internal sources of support. They recognise the potential for raising regional and national reputation and are keen to leverage the recognition of the EIT HEI Initiative to build talent hubs in the HEI’s regions.

What key lessons did you learn from your endeavours to institutionalise the project activities and outcomes?

We learned that starting small and scaling up gradually is crucial. We recommend beginning with one research team and then scaling up to the departmental level, faculty level, and finally the university level. We also found that it is essential to use the power of example to demonstrate the benefits of EIT best practices and training toolkits, especially to higher management.

It is also important to tell a good story to describe what you want to achieve and make the audience visualise the outcome. We acknowledge that not everyone will be onboard at first. That’s why you should allow at least two years for the institutional transformation to be completed and then another two years for the full operationalisation.

Finally, we recommend developing a good impact measurement system to prove how you will measure the effects of the institutional change. What works for one HEI may not work for another, so having a bespoke strategy is important.

Could you share one highlight from your work on the project?

The EIL at YASAR University, which is co-funded by RiEcoLab, has received a total of approximately €1 million from the Turkish government. As a result, it has become an official governmental accelerator for agri-food innovations!

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

Published on: 20 November 2023